Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth_Grade.pngIt’s not exactly The Godfather but in its opening monologue, using the awkward tween, like-laden mouthpiece of Kayla, Bo Burnham re-exerts his creative voice on the media landscape. What is more, in a world becoming continually more obsessed with relevance, shareability, and trends, Eighth Grade promises something of actual substance.

Because it dares to do what few films have done (or done well), which is enter the perilous trenches of middle school plagued by all the anxiety, bodily changes, and nervous stuttering that goes with such turbulent territory.

Looking into Kayla’s face for as long as we do — every painful tick and averted gaze — we realize this message to “Be Yourself” on her channel is as much of a rallying cry for her than for anyone else. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? We live life for affirmation and to know we are not alone.

I can still recall when I was in middle school (10 years ago now), which must feel like eons for middle schoolers right now. But the big new gizmo was the iPhone. MySpace was just becoming a thing of the past as the Facebook storm began to creep in. By the time of my final year in high school, Instagram was on the scene.

Now people (even me) don’t really use Facebook. We’ve moved onto Instagram, Snap Chat, and new uncharted frontiers. In the social media age proliferating with Instagram stories, Youtube vlogs, podcasts, snap stories and whatever else that is new and novel, there is a hyper-awareness of technology, surpassing anything we have yet to see.

Our daily brand — how we showcase ourselves to the public — is so important as is second-guessing every text and emoji to make sure they make us come off in the right light. In fact, even by the movie’s conclusion, we feel saturated. But the truly sobering aspect is seeing how it so directly overlaps with my own life and the lives of friends as we navigate this age. It’s not too far removed from us.

Eighth Grade is also a film that greatens my resolve to go on a technology detox in some shape or form. Kayla, constantly scrolling, plugged in with earbuds, is not so much a bygone figure but a mild reflection of many of us — even those of us who are older.

But on the Middle School front, there are also instantly recognizable vignettes from rubber bands on braces to health class and superlatives within the student body. It is these relatable elements causing Eighth Grade to mirror Boyhood in how it capably recalls a certain time and place.

And like Edge of Seventeen, there’s a fascination in the bad boy who by any subjective standard is arguably the most uninteresting specimen of the opposite gender in the entire pack. It’s the way our adolescent brains function causing us to channel people through a very specific filter.

Initially, the movie feels more low key and less edgy than aspects of middle school I remember around the fringes. However, there also manages to be ample truth. Though everyone has diverse experiences, there are other elements proving themselves universal.

There’s the invitation to the pool party which is in itself ripe with so many potential humiliations. The over the shoulder slow track as Kayla plods along tentatively is one of Burnham’s favorite tricks to get inside her character — epitomizing just how much of an unconfident, introvert she is among her peers.

It turns out to be a bit like a three-ringed circus but not in some outrageous way — in the everyday idiosyncratic, cringe-worthy way we no doubt experienced in our own lives. We are allowed to observe the silly flirting rituals of the genders. How a girl’s mother invites her 50 “best friends” to the party thereby netting a veritable lode of presents.

Then we are reminded of how fledgling teenagers coexist (or don’t) with their parents. What follow are the well-established angsty, taciturn evasion tactics. It’s one of the strange mysteries of the universe. Everyone else’s parents are fine but the moment we hit a certain age our own parents find a way of wheedling under our skins and our own issues and insecurities meets head-on with these people who love us and often try our patience.

In the darkness, in front of a glowing screen — not only the circadian rhythms are thrown out of whack — but with technology literally when we wake up (phones as alarm clocks) and web surfing before bed, there’s room for concern. There is little space left over for quiet. We are never alone. Never allotted time to simply exist, undistracted.

In one moment Kayla utters the cutest prayer about the first day of her high school “audition.” If we were to take it seriously, her prayer is answered in the form of Olivia, a bubbly high schooler, who instantly puts her shadow at ease. But while Olivia is easy and kind and inclusive, her friends are a shoddy bunch.

Between them, we have the confrontation of this idea of micro generations — how quickly things change now — and how we are “wired differently” based on when we grew up. Middle schoolers versus high schoolers, then college students, and now an old fogey like me out of college.

An awkward interaction becomes progressively creepier in the darkened back seat of a car when she is getting driven home by a boy. In fact, it turns into a traumatic experience. No young woman should have to deal with something like that in an already harrowing world. It breaks the heart because we know there is a truth to it.

Kayla gratefully finds another worthy friend in Gabe — who is the dork to trump all dorks — but he’s also a person of quality because he’s never destructive or narcissistic. There is an authentic warmth to him which makes him worth having in your corner. When he asks Kayla if she believes in God, munching on fries and chicken nuggets it’s matter-of-fact, if not candid.

The conversation feels so forced and awkward but they are both on equal footing, worrying and concerned and so it makes every weird observation or odd behavior part of the new, accepted status quo. None of it matters. They are friends.

These moments trigger brief wisps of memories where I wish I could go back to those days armed with a few of the things I learned now. Being content in my own skin enough to take leaps of faith, being bold, and making an idiot of myself more often. It works when you have people in your circle who aren’t trying to play a superficial popularity contest with you. They’re the definition of what a friend actually is if you look it up in the dictionary, instead of a convenient social conception.

In the end, I couldn’t help wishing Eighth Grade was a television program instead of a film. I’m not sure if this is a negative conclusion to come true. All I can consider are my warm memories for The Wonder Years and then Freaks and Geeks, which both gave us such meaningful articulations of a certain time in life. Kevin Arnold’s voiceovers as his adult self are a thing of legend. And Kayla gives us a similar entry point through her vlog. But it doesn’t feel as visually cinematic as it does episodic.

Burnham’s finest scene is probably the pool party because like other films before it, he’s able to use that arena to give us something about our main character. To some degree though, the film is full of astute and highly personal insights, there is something tiring about montage, vacuous pop music paired with voiceover.

Then again, if there was anyone qualified to look at this material in this manner, it probably is Burnham who himself began as a YouTube personality. There is an instantaneous bit of truth he can inject into the movie and even if this was all it was, there is something to it. If it connects with some kid on a meaningful level, I would consider it to be an unequivocal success.

Elsie Fisher is a name I recall from Despicable Me but in this live-action performance, she brings the crucial unassuming charm to push the role into a believable world. A connection is made thanks to her and when the credits roll we want Kayla to be herself knowing full well how special she is. Mr. Rogers isn’t in vogue with middle schoolers or high schoolers and yet there is such lasting veracity in one of his most famous affirmations.

“You make each day a special day. You know how? By just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And that’s you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

I think we could all use more words like these in our lives. Replacing Twitter feuds with uplifting words of praise seems like a worthwhile tradeoff. It only takes one voice to start a movement.

4/5 Stars

 

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers_Endgame_poster.jpgThe cultural event the whole world seems to have been waiting for has finally arrived. Avengers Endgame is finally open to the public. The secrecy can cease. The debates can begin. Disney can start raking in the billions. And I presume, on the whole, the general public can let out a collective sigh of relief. The studio hasn’t ruined the tightly shepherded franchise and for those with a share of skepticism, Avengers‘s “final chapter” does some things quite well. At the very least, it brings back the epics of old for one evening of entertainment. That in itself is enough of a compliment.

Certainly, at our most jaundice, one might contend Endgame needs to solely succeed in the area of wish fulfillment. Never has a franchise so effectively mobilized and harnessed the fervor of nerd culture around a film franchise (except maybe Star Wars and Disney owns that too).

Many of the same old grievances and world struggles are hashed out around tables and conference rooms led by the opposing ideals represented by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). It’s true the expositional scenes with sciency jargon have the usual clumsy clunkiness. Films have never been known for their seamlessly technical dialogue.

The Russo Brother’s camera (gotta love ’em) is swirling around as much as ever. The compositions of scenes are rarely something we have time to appreciate as the images fly by with typical rapid-fire cutting. The superpowers are bigger, better, more colorful, and continue to leave the realm of reality behind for CGI visions, all the easier to rectify when you’ve made a mess of the world. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is so much easier with computers.

The jokes are there and the cultural references to Back to the Future and others are easy wins without any risk. Likewise, resident superhuman fighter pilot, Carol Danvers (a steely Brie Larson) seems like a convenient enough deus ex machina to piece the narrative back together in the wake of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Are there plot holes? We’re working in convoluted increments of time so events get dicey and yet the narrative comes out mostly intact leaning into emotion rather than mere systematic logic.

It’s right here where Endgame manages to satiate our desires for — not just closure — but a meaningful denouement to this storyline. I am one of those to decry this lumbering beast at times and still as the hypocrite and movie fan that I am, there’s no way to be totally immune to this cultural force.

In the days when going to the cinema palace for a roadshow and being subjected to an earth-shattering moment seem all but behind us, this epic is the closest thing we have to such an experience in the 21st century. Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars it is not. Still, it means a great deal to this generation. It functions as its own entity — a cultural touchstone for this decade.

The story does well to tap into this zeitgeist. Here’s a forewarning for mild SPOILERS. Endgame takes the genre of a time travel heist to layer upon the world we already know. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has mostly functioned in the periphery but now he is an integral piece because it is the technology he brings, created by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), giving the remnants leftover a chance to right the past — this is their one-in-a-million chance as indicated by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Marvel screenwriting vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do well in essentially turning their latest story into a riff on a time travel heist film. It fits the context of how they might conceivably bring their friends back — not so much by changing the past — but creating an alternate reality of sorts where things can work out the way they were meant to.

Three task forces must go after the six infinity stones in the years before Thanos got a hold of them. We flashback to 2012 in New York with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Scott Lang. This self-reflexive nature serves the story but also an increasing sense of nostalgia. Because I remember sitting in that theater having barely seen a Marvel movie before.

There I was in the first row with my friend Mike. I remember playing ultimate frisbee the afternoon before. I had marathoned Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor the previous night. College was starting in a few months. And it was the epitome of a summer blockbuster. This twofold experience is not lost on me. Both the movie and my experiences intermingle. We cannot separate them.

Then, a sullen Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a Rip Van Winkle beard and giant beer belly must return to Asgard, witnessing its previous glory and seeing his mother (Rene Russo) only hours before she would be killed. They share a poignant moment even as the retrieval of the Infinity Stone and the presence of Jane (Natalie Portman) takes secondary importance. I didn’t mind because all I could remember was sitting in those reclining seats with Adam and Kayt during the midnight showing back in 2013.

Next, we moved on to our first meeting of The Guardians of the Galaxy. It was the summer of 2014 and I was back from college catching up with my buddy Nick. What a pleasant surprise we had watching a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a tree (Vin Diesel) jam out to Redbone. By this point, the plot feels almost unimportant. It can ride along on the dynamics of characters and my own nostalgia. In some weird way, it felt evocative of simpler times — even just fives years ago. It’s often how we manage to romanticize in hindsight, which works handsomely to the film’s advantage.

I bemoaned the fact in Infinity War, it felt like I didn’t care about these characters anymore — whether they lived or died. Endgame does its darndest to make us remember relationships, friendships, all the things making each one of these superhumans, gods, or otherwise sentient beings like us. The opening pre-credit hook is case and point. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is teaching his daughter to shoot. His wife (Linda Cardellini) is getting the food together for a family picnic. It’s the antithesis of epic. But it feels real. There is instant recognition of stakes.

There didn’t seem to be any finality to Thanos decimating the world because it was a cliffhanger. However, there is no such weakness here. It earns its ending. No after-credits tease. No drawing the story out or pulling punches to undermine the impact of the final scenes. In fact, I’ll rip off the band-aid now. Beloved characters do die and there is no turning back time for them. They’re gone. That’s okay. It feels real and their deaths have meaning. And those still living move forward with lingering sorrow but also the hope of the future. They have roots, they have family, and lives to lead beyond the confines of a film.

Tony Stark and Pepper (Gwenyth Paltrow) have a daughter now. He worries about giving up his family — his last fragment of happiness — in order to alter the earlier events. And yet if we remember the brilliant egomaniac circa 2008, Tony is radically different now. His arrogance gives way to sacrifice, even as meeting his old man makes him appreciate his own dad (John Slattery) and how similar they really are — young fathers trying to do the best for their families as imperfect human beings.

Cap changes too. His almost untouchable emblematic image of Americanism was laid to rest. Not in some anti-establishment, unpatriotic turn. Instead, he became even more human in order to romance the love of his life (and mine!) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and cherish the dance of life together.

Chris Hemsworth’s fatty Thor might be the finest comic relief in the movie but he manages an evolution of his own as a character, realizing his lifelong need to be lauded by others will no longer rule his own life. He gives up his kingship for a worthy successor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sibling dynamic is of less importance but Nebula is an integral figure as she tries to reconcile her former self with what she knows she can become. Even as Thanos waits for his pursuers in the biblically inflected “Garden,” tilling the earth, his daughter must come to terms with where she falls along this gradient of good and evil.

But are you ready? For all those who’ve been waiting patiently, you will be rewarded. There is the long-awaited behemoth death match to help realize the childhood aspirations of any boy or girl who has ever dreamt themselves a superhero warding off the evils and saving the universe either vicariously through their action figures or in their own imaginations.

It’s messy, full of explosions, and spastic choreography. Why harp on the faults because if you cannot consider it with the imagination of a child, the movie probably isn’t meant for you anyway. If anything, the eye candy gives an obligatory “moment” to all the heavy hitters, big and small.

Fortuitously, the film allows the time and space to wrap up its character arcs and call back all the relationships built up over 10 years of film. In another movie, the climax would have peaked too early but this picture is making up for two movies, if not far more. There is a great deal riding on these final moments for the very reason we expect satisfaction as an audience.

What felt so exhilarating about Endgame, again, was the very finality. I know there are more projects ahead with Spider-Man, Guardians, etc. but even with characters like Cap and Iron Man, we are reminded that sometimes things cannot go back to the way they were before. Life changes as do peoples and societies.

Cap dancing in the arms of Peggy for one last time (or the first) with the melody of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” drifting through the air is enough for me. It’s the love story I always seemed to care most about and always longed to be realized in some gratifying form. Am I wrong to say this taps into some innate fairytale-like inclination? To want not just the happy ending but the reunion, the realization of lasting love.

I won’t say the Marvel franchise has always been a cutting-edge statement on the state of our world but it has been in many lives for a very long time — as an extension of our experience — sometimes it’s good and right to bring things to an end. How can you appreciate the times and memories you’ve had and really cherish them without closure? I thank Marvel for respecting its characters enough to give them this — to allow them to rest in peace — at least for the time being. It’s true that after the 22nd film we rested, briefly. Better late than never.

4/5 Stars

Searching (2018)

Searching.pngSearching is a film promoting a certain plotting device in this social media age of ours. An Up-like introduction played through old computer memories and hard drive data is surprisingly poignant. It provides the backstory for a parent-child relationship to play out, albeit with the mechanisms of a thriller.

The opportunity to see an Asian-American family front and center in a film like this is too much to pass up. Once more, after Columbus, John Cho proves — not surprisingly — he’s more than capable of anchoring a movie with a lot of intriguing potential.

Because this is a story of a father who thinks everything is normal — aside from his wife no longer being with them. So when his daughter doesn’t message him one evening and forgets to take out the trash, he shrugs it off as the usual. But the hours continue to tick away and still no response from Margo.  He’s getting annoyed and finally very, very worried.

It reaches the point his daughter is pronounced missing, an investigator named Rosemary Vick comes on the case, and David starts seeing a side of his daughter he never knew existed — namely because in the aftermath of his wife’s death (her mother) — they have never found the time to talk about it.

Instead, like many good conservative families, all put together and everything, they keep on living life like nothing’s wrong while loneliness and different types of rancor take hold. It hits a fever pitch when his daughter Margot is simply not responding and none of her “friends” have seen her in a couple days.

A story about a disconnected father and daughter all of a sudden becomes fodder for our thriller with more heady implications. There are compelling aspects to this film beyond the taut pulses of tension stretched for all they’re worth. I won’t make any claim this is an Ozu-like examination of familial relationships — the palette is not nearly as meticulous — but it’s trying, even going so far as to tackle the aftermath of grief.

More so, Aneesh Chaganty’s movie is made for The Internet Age. We exist in a world full of “catfishing” on the internet. So much gets promoted, lied about, and falsified in this identity theft, fake news, self-promotion era that we now live in. Where we share our condolences and show our grief to gain likes and follows but it feels like there’s no true investment — no authentic concern for loved ones and others being affected.

All these elements could not be more pertinent than right now and Searching makes the point of reminding us how much of this technology has blown up during our very lifetime. In some regards, the course this story takes as far as computer advances and windows desktops are concerned are akin to my life.

There is a chill factor that has the titillating tinge of Gone Girl but unfortunately, it is not capable of paying off in the same bone-chilling manner. The final twist — because there most assuredly is one — feels too much like the conclusion to a movie trying to find the perfect bow to tie everything together. The logic is not quite right as it fits the clean contours of a screenplay more than reality and as a result, it does not feel nearly risky enough.

The underlying problem begins with the concept, because such a conceit as this, playing out over social media, video, and with the always dubious screens on screens approach, runs the risk of feeling like a gimmick. Searching does well to use its assets in the opening minutes, setting up this family and this life and dropping hints of things that don’t seem quite right.

However, it becomes a slave to its own storytelling devices which hinders the scenario instead of aiding in the resolution. Because it is never willing to break out of this perspective even once and resultingly, the narrative does feel quite limiting, even cold.

Surely, technology does this to us — we could easily make this argument — but for the sake of the story, it starts feeling stagnant and repetitive, verging into seemingly more unrealistic territory as time goes on. The gimmick becomes a weakness instead of a powerful tool for creating a world itself. Unfortunately, the film suffers, no fault of Cho who does a valiant job.

Even with technology being so prevalent as a narrative device, it leads to more chinks in the armor so to speak. Because what begins as something fairly authentic and relatable starts to show more and more aspects that don’t feel like our lives anymore. Not simply someone going missing but how technology is utilized even in the everyday. These subsequent scenes feel slightly unnatural whereas the opening interludes where full of recognition with moments we all probably relate to.

The core issue is the human aspect being gone. It loses a heartbeat on its characters who are meant to make this thriller something to really get invested in. Searching never quite got me there, where I felt an innate connection. Again, noting the obvious irony, the screens got in the way.

3/5 Stars

Incredibles 2 (2018)

The_Incredibles_2.jpgPleasant surprises abound in Incredibles 2. What is supremely evident is that Brad Bird still has a pulse on quality storytelling just as the overall animation is blessed by the continual technological advancements in the medium.

Here we are picking up right where the previous film left off with the Parrs donning their disguises to face off against the Underminer to save the city. It works seamlessly as an opening gambit even if it has little bearing on the subsequent plot.

Regardless, it plays like a bit of wish fulfillment and yet somehow we must begrudgingly admit the encompassing magic has somehow left the material. We can never get back the unassuming success of The Incredibles now that it returns as a blockbuster juggernaut. Still, what isn’t lost is the retro cool or the equally frosty camaraderie provided by Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Then, the long-awaited return of Edna Mode follows which is equally satiating though far too short.

The creme de la creme was witnessing the full extent of Jack Jack’s immeasurable powers. You can tell the Pixar team has a blast exploring his full potentials and they really hit it out of the ballpark to realize the open-endings they left themselves in the original movie.

However, the film also begins its new chapter by introducing a brother and sister power duo, Winston and Evelyn Dever (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who are looking to rebrand the superheroes and sway public opinion to get them reinstated.

Since we still live in a world wary of supers, this is a chance to right the ship and allow the Parr family to exhibit their powers without fear of public backlash. Despite everything they’ve been through as a family, what becomes increasingly apparent is how circumstances haven’t changed much. This is where the new chapter really begins.

On the homefront, they agree Ellen will dawn her Elastigirl attire once more as Bob is faced with the harrowing task of taking care of his children. Jack Jack is literally a bouncing fireball of energy. Violet is having boy problems. Dash is struggling with The New Math without his mother’s instruction. All these issues fall on the man of the house now.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Elastigirl must track down a criminal mastermind, The Screenslaver, who is using television screens to mesmerize audiences through some ultra high-tech form of mind control. But as this is a film full of media and PR tactics, it seems convenient this is all part of a broader conspiracy to discredit supers for good. It’s meeting the Deavor’s plan in an equal and opposite direction — with nefarious implications.

Villainy is always a sense of someone with convictions they believe to be true ultimately getting twisted in ominous ways. It’s easy enough to discern who the culprit is but we can hardly hold it against the narrative.

The story culminates at a summit to promote goodwill between benevolent authority (Isabella Rossellini) and the supers. However, as the result of wide-ranging tampering,  any projected trailer-worthy moments from our three favorite superheroes are essentially killed in a dastardly attempt to sink negotiations.

But what it does do is provide a platform for the Parr kids to strut their stuff. It seems fitting the final act belongs to them following their mother’s ascension to the starring role for the bulk of Incredibles 2. It is the best reminder that the series was always a family affair and far from being just another superhero movie, it was a family movie first and last.

Still, I cannot help but feel something is eerily amiss. Yes, if we reach back into our memories from where we left The Incredibles before it does feel gratifying to add another chapter to their story.

But like Finding Dory from only a few years ago, there’s such a big gap between the chapters, a certain amount of detachment sets in, especially since we are expected to pick up right where we left off. Toy Story 3 takes into account the fact we have matured over the last decade and change.

These newer entries seem to take it for granted that we are near the same places we were years ago. Granted, I understand it’s all but necessary with where we left the Parrs. Still, in a young person’s life seismic shifts have occurred and so if Pixar’s stories have not changed, it feels odd since we have changed so much. We are more out of touch with the content. Maybe we have even moved on.

And yet even as these stories operate as if nothing has changed, there are small things that do feel different. It’s nitpicky to admit but we have a new Dash and other slight changes in the original continuity. True, the Supers were all decimated by the threat of Syndrome but there are really no tie-ins to the heroes of old — I’m talking about the supporting crew aside from Mr. Incredible, Elastagirl, and Frozone.

Because we get this new batch of superheroes who in some strange way feel out of place and we have no reason to like or even care about them. Is this overly harsh? Perhaps but it comes from a space of deep affection for what The Incredibles was able to imbibe and so anything else added to the canon is going to come under a lot of scrutiny.

Where it counts The Incredibles 2 is a worthwhile outing with flashes of nostalgia that can easily pass for rediscovered thrills. Filled in by the stellar, fresh animation and Michael Giaccomo’s score, it might be easy to claim contentment.

That doesn’t mean we cannot still hang on to some of our minor qualms. Because if anything they remain as a testament to how special the original installment was and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means we can cherish the first film even more.

4/5 Stars

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave_No_Trace.pngLeave No Trace instantly reminded me of two distinct reference points. The first relates to a man named Richard Proenneke who lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years building his own cabin and raising his own food in a life of tranquil solitude.

Then, the other comes from a book I read when I was a kid called My Side of a Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George, following a young man who literally goes out into a forest, builds himself a home hewn out of a tree, and subsists off the land. The common themes running through these narratives are already quite obvious.

If you’re like me, especially in this technology-saturated world of ours, sometimes it seems like we’re pretty helpless and ever plugged into our devices. But some of us look at such stories and see a sense of romanticism. It seems like a nice idea — like a picnic or going camping — out communing with nature. Except it only goes so far. We love to read about it and live vicariously through others but we stop short of getting involved ourselves.

The pair existing in Leave No Trace is actually up to the challenge of living this life on the move, out in an Oregon nature reserve, surviving off the land, and in so many ways remaining self-sufficient. They are far closer than many of us can probably ever comprehend. Because everything they do has near life and death consequences. You don’t live as they do without getting close and forming a bond. There is no other way to exist aside from constant symbiosis.

The father, Will (Ben Foster), a former member of the military, has passed down so many practical skills to his daughter, training her up to survive out in the wild. It’s like an extreme version of homeschooling. Tom’s (Thomasin Mackenzie) social skills are lacking but if you stacked her up against anyone her age she’s probably more resourceful and capable than any of them. Because her brain has not been programmed by technology nor is it awash in a world of a vacuous glut of constant stimuli. Their total immersion in nature is refreshing as is their independence and very stripped down lifestyle.

But this journey is particularly worthwhile because it is still set in our world and so these two very unique individuals are forced to brush up against society and the norms in place. Technically, they are trespassing and so in a way they take on the mantle of fugitives constantly on the run as nomads dodging the authorities. You can only hide and break camp and get away so long. Even for people as attuned and regimented as them, there’s always a slip-up.

Now there are good folks in the world — social workers and then common, ordinary people who try and give them a leg up. There are ways to get Tom and her dad back into society without completing severing their ties with the naturalism that is most comfortable for them.

It is a story about a relationship, a very close-knit relationship between a father and daughter. But it becomes a story of maturation as well. Tom realizes her dad is hardwired a certain way. Whether it is restless feet, the demons of post-traumatic stress, or some unnamed specter, he’s constantly dodging, or simply discontent with modern society. He is never capable of settling down.

Meanwhile, she is willing to make allowances and sculpts each place they find together into a new home. Still, it never feels like she’s selling out completely. True, she’s enamored with a new bicycle and mentions in passing how having a phone would make it easier to communicate and yet the core aspects of her character do not waver. Tom still maintains her immense inquisitiveness and affection for all flora and fauna in the great outdoors. She loves dogs, makes friends over rabbits and honeybees. These are the places she is truly in her element.

However, she is also a willing participant, ready to enmesh herself in an ecosystem of people. She gets comfortable around the relationships she makes and yearns to set roots down somewhere. The great revelation comes when she realizes her father can never be that. Instead of always following his lead, she becomes more and more of her own person, making her own decisions. It has nothing to do with a split or not loving him anymore. This is about being mature enough to let other people go and being okay with the realization.

Read only as words on the page, Leave No Trace could be chock full of high drama but it wins its victories through the subtility of its leads and the more nuanced touches to fill in around the naturalism and bevy of sojourning survival tactics. Debra Granik directs the movie with an eye attuned to relationships and while generally unadorned, the movie is full of wonderment in the world’s natural beauty.

It exhibits the lush greenery quintessential to the rainy, fresh imagery that the Oregon coast conjures up. There is arguably no better film that I’ve seen to capture this environ in all its verdant glory. While a completely different sort of film, I could not but for a moment recall one of the greenest films to ever be on the silver screen, The Quiet Man. Because whether romantic or familial there’s no question the milieu of a film is so crucial in fashioning how we perceive a cinematic experience. Like its predecessor, Leave No Trace is a roaring success channeled through tranquil trails of its own creation. Sometimes those trails must break off and lead toward different destinations. Being content in moving on is key.

4/5 Stars

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy_Rich_Asians_poster.pngThe opening gambit of Crazy Rich Asians feels like the scene some Asian moviegoers have been waiting for all their lives. We’re in a stuffy hotel lobby with the snooty staff looking to deny service to Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) and by the end of the conversation she winds up mopping the floor with them. It’s satisfying to get some sweet revenge but short of being malicious, it’s rewarding, setting the tone for the rest of the experience to come.

No one can understate just how impactful Crazy Rich Asians is for the Asian film community. Images speak volumes in this saturated world of ours and they are a meaningful reflection of the lives we lead every day. Thus, it means so much when they are able to reach out and resonate with a wide audience in a totally satisfying way.

Because doing a cursory look back over the past decades, the last times we had anything close to this in mainstream Hollywood would be The Joy Luck Club and then Flower Drum Song decades earlier and yet these movies were like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Hopefully, those days — when such films feel like noteworthy outliers — will soon be left behind us.

However, the beauty is that this is not just about Asian-Americans but Asians across the world from all different backgrounds. It is a stepping stone to greater representation and I believe that is all we can ask for. It cannot be the perfect film but it can lead to more opportunities in the future for Asian stars. If the box office returns are any indication, we’re on an encouraging road in this regard. This is a landmark picture for Asian audiences and they have shown their support.

It must be stressed above all else, this is not simply a showcase for Asian representation around a lifeless shell of a movie. This is universal, quality entertainment that can reach out and be relished by everyone. Because it starts with a leading couple who are warm and witty with the chemistry to tie a picture like this together nearly effortlessly.

Constance Wu is Rachel Chu, an Economics professor, smart, pretty, funny — all the superlatives of a rom-com heroine — and she is in love with a seemingly great guy. His name is Nick Young (Henry Goulding) and he’s a handsome stud full of warmth and thoughtfulness.

The most pleasant surprise about our central romantic relationship is how it’s forged between two people who genuinely love each other and treat each other well. It does not rely on contrived misunderstandings or sudden swings in character, making mountains out of molehills for the sake of the story.

Everything that threatens to destroy their relationship is the results of outside stressors. Specifically, because they are having to face Nick’s family together for the first time and the expectations that come in such circles. In his romancing of Rachel, Nick never flaunted the affluence he was born into. Growing up in Singapore his family was not just rich, their lives are absolutely overflowing with decadence. Right here, the film (based off Kevin Kwan’s book) earns its title; they are CRAZY rich.

While they are not the core sources of strife, Rachel and Nick are nonetheless taxed and forced to come to terms with who they really are and what their main priorities will be. It delivers a wonderfully satisfying result. We have this cross-cultural chafing between Rachel who was born of an immigrant mother in America. She’s worked hard to get where she is. Whereas Nick is culturally Singaporean and he is part of a rich tradition that cherishes the good of the family name above all else.

Michelle Yeoh proves a venerable and worthy adversary because she is one of the most authentic kind, a conflicted antagonist who has genuine concerns and capacities for immense affection. The key is a devotion to family duty and loving her son. It’s a very real issue that plagues her and the age-old dynamic when her boy brings a new girl to meet the parents. It just so happens they’re really, really rich.

Many viewers with only a nominal interest will probably be engrossed in this world of complete and total excess. You have opulent clothing, jewels, sprawling mansions, and almost unimaginable riches. It will give a view of Singapore — a place many Americans might be unfamiliar with — that we can probably somewhat call into question. Again, it’s important to stress this is not a blanket representation of the entire country but it does give us some sumptuous sights to enjoy.

You have private islands for bachelorette parties, bazookas going off on gigantic yachts, and any amount of other luxuries. True to form, I was most enraptured by the food. Thankfully, this is not a completely hollow world because we are given a road into this space through the vast array of players. The film is especially rich in vibrant secondary characters who breath humorous and touching life into this tale of family and cultural identity.

There are the catty women looking to tear Jessica down because she had the good fortune to catch Nick instead of them; they even go so far as to leave a bloody, dead fish on top of her bed in an act of vengeance. Then, the gossipy old women can’t help but get distracted during their bible study, sharing the latest tidbits and watching Jessica like a hawk when she makes her first appearance. It’s true everything seems to exist inside this magnified petri dish where every action is being monitored and everyone is just waiting for the wheels to come off.

The men are little better, obsessed with money, personal reputations, and their own perceived masculinity. Nick’s closest cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is saddled with such a relationship. This B story is not as strong nor as beneficial to the full arc of this narrative but for those who have not read the books (like me), there’s an inclination it is setting up future arcs. Regardless, Gemma Chan is a sympathetic figure and she tries to navigate her own guilt about coming from money and concerns over feeling like she’s emasculating her wet-noodle of a husband.

The true standouts are the showstopping trio of Awkquafina in her blonde wig, Ken Jeong as her CSU Fullerton-graduated father, and Nico Santos as Cousin Oliver the one with the family fashion sense and enough covert gumption to help Rachel stand up to his Auntie.

The final glowing jewel of the movie has to be Lisa Lu who plays Nick’s grandmother. Though a smaller part, she is no less crucial as the family’s oldest matriarch. Lu acts as not only a connection point to the last major landmark of Hollywood Asian-American cinema, The Joy Luck Club, her career also had ties to less heralded but no less historically fascinating work like The Mountain Road where she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart.

Right up until the final shot of  John Chu’s blockbuster romance, I am happily reminded this is an unabashed fairy tale. The wedding scenes have license to feel magical and it’s not merely gaudy decadence anymore but real, sincere fairy dust floating over the moment that makes them feel innately special. Kina Grannis lends her gossamer voice to the moment and even Harry Shun Jr. makes an enigmatic cameo (her costar from Wong Fu’s Single at 30).

I was also somehow strangely entranced by Katherine Ho’s cover of “Yellow” which felt like a perfect capstone. The best movies are an experience and Crazy Rich Asians certainly fits the bill.

4/5 Stars

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

MI_–_Fallout.jpgTom Cruise is the closest thing we have to a modern marvel on the current cinema landscape. Despite being over 50 years old, it seems like he continues to redefine what it means to be an action hero in the 21st century. A lot of his brilliance stems from taking a page out of the playbook from generations gone by.

He is by no means Buster Keaton but he channels that same fearless energy that makes the movies feel like an arena of adrenaline-filled possibility. The important distinction is the very fact his films do not shy away from CGI and yet they find this perfect medium between real and practical stunts, paired with the limitless canvas current technology allows for.

Despite the obvious implications, it’s hard not to think of the double meaning of Fallout as Cruise finds himself skydiving, fighting, chasing, leaping, and bounding his way through his mission. He hangs suspended from an escaping helicopter in one perilous stunt that looks deserving of our trepidation.

There’s the noted seismic jump that literally leads to him breaking his leg because his convincing flailing momentum took him right into the side of a building — clinging to its edge — instead of lifting him over. Any number of toils and sacrifices he takes for the movie pay heavy dividends. As an audience, we can see his effort and applaud him for it.

Like Keaton before him, there is something attractive about a hero who is implacable. Nothing can stop them. Cruise even gets a motorcycle chase of his own no doubt worthy of Steve McQueen, if not even better (I can’t believe I said that).

It’s always a pleasure to admit a film has some stellar twists and Fallout more than delivers in this regard. Some are easily foreseeable and a couple might catch just about everyone off guard. As it should be. However, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because the story does not put all its eggs in this single basket. Once the twists are done with, there are still so many other reasons to stay engaged.

If we are to believe Hitchcock, it is not about these sudden payoffs but this maintained sense of constant tension and impending doom. Fallout grabs us in its opening scene and will not dare let up. Writer-director Christoper McQuarrie is in such a unique position because, with the aid of Cruise, he has created his own personal sandbox to work with, while running with Ethan Hunt and the Mission Impossible universe that has been bequeathed to him.

He feels more than comfortable with these characters and the world and this allows him to employ a certain amount of torque and elasticity to stretch it to its utter limit. This is far from Bruce Geller’s franchise headlined by Peter Graves in the 1960s. MI has been cross-pollinated with Bond, Bourne, and anything else you can imagine from Jackie Chan to the plethora of modern spy TV programs on the airwaves.

What sets it apart is the specificity of this world and this we can attribute back to McQuarrie. Vagueness, austere execution, and bland beats will get you nowhere in this day and age. Sure, we have the overarching MacGuffin. There are the three plutonium cores being bandied about for the life of Ethan Hunt’s nemesis Solomon Lane, underlined by the threat of mercenary terrorists operating based on his influence across the globe.

A plethora of covert organizations all have a hand in these international affairs. One of them is MIA headed by Alec Baldwin, another the CIA with Angela Basset. She has brought in her own man (Henry Cavill) to finish up business. In her eyes, Ethan Hunt has already jeopardized the job; he cannot be trusted to see it to completion. If these organizations are purportedly on the same team (along with MI6), one can only imagine what happens when they cross paths with their real enemies mixed in with social terrorists and opportunists like White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). But every antagonistic, tension-filled dynamic is all crucial for there to be a story of any conflict and consequence.

However, the meaning is aggregated because of what our hero is up against. Stakes of a personal nature are almost imperative because they take these broad social issues with heady implications and place them right in the wheelhouse of a hero. It’s no coincidence Ethan Hunt is touted for caring for individual people around him because this influences how he saves the world. It’s full of humanity. It also complicates his life like nothing else.

Not only is Lane still on the loose, conducting a mission of not simply anarchy but out and out revenge, he’s after Ethan and those close to him. Because the friendships of Luther and Benji run thick and deep. He will do just about anything to protect his buddies. The same goes for Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who inevitably ties into the action. In my estimation, Ferguson remains one of my favorite action heroes, full of resiliency, wit, and most important of all, a believable amount of humanity.

In this particular story, their relationship is plagued by the hazards of such an occupation, making excruciating choices, and finding people you care about on the other end of a kill list. But to Hunt, the important differentiation is that these are not liabilities (although they might seem to be), as much as they are what sets him apart. And if you thought the connections end there, you’d be very much mistaken. Someone else very important to him (Michelle Monahan) turns up again.

This film is constantly twisting and turning, bursting with movement and setpieces galore but it simultaneously builds to a genuinely satisfying crescendo. This would not be possible without the legitimate character dynamics built over the years. Even someone like me — a relative latecomer to the franchise — can feel the gravitational pull between these people. There is a weight to the relationships even within this context of cloak and dagger danger.

In the end, the final act feels like a textbook example of cross-cutting because we have three strands that we’re constantly invested in. We care about the characters in peril but also about their objectives. Each one ties into this greater mission and the ultimate resolution of our story.

Disarming a bomb is a staple and alone it would seem trite. It’s reinforced by the other parties tracking down the second plutonium core conveniently stationed with a clandestine Lane, now in hiding.

Simultaneously Hunt fearlessly tracks a helicopter carrying the prop that must be retrieved if all the other tasks are not to be for naught. It’s a throwaway object really but what makes up for it is the continued tenacity of Cruise to take on the stunts and make the action sequences compelling — that and special effects, of course. But we don’t feel completely bloated by them. There is enough personal interaction to make it feel accessible even on this harrowing scale.

We finally reach the peak and just as it seems we’ll either be blasted to oblivion or tossed over the cliffside, the release valve is hit with ultimate satisfaction. This is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating rushes available over the past summer. There’s little left to do but be flabbergasted by Tom Cruise. Top Gun was so long ago. Even the original Mission Impossible is now over 20 years old. Yet he remains as a lucrative action star and for the time being, he isn’t going anywhere.

4/5 Stars

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

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Madeline’ Madeline takes the very individualistic nature of its title and boldly realizes it through POV and metaphor to begin digging around in the perplexing head-space of a teenager. The first words we hear are as follows, “The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” We are in a hospital and then within a feline pawing and purring, followed by a turtle sliding its way out to the ocean into the depths of the sea.

In the midst of the movie, I had an epiphany that I would have difficulty being an actor if the part strayed away from human qualities. Because when I look at animals there is wonderment there but I never feel like I could bring anything to them. I cannot understand or comprehend them.

Likewise, it would be difficult for me to invest in the perspective of a turtle and a cat, not that they are not important but they do not seem to operate, think, and act in the same way that we do as human beings. Because Madeline (Helena Howard) is a character who is playing a part and the metaphor is extended across this entire film. One could say she is playing a version of herself — the version that she perceives and wants to exist as — while others have another version of her that they want.

In playing her part, she willingly sheds her skin and puts on the guise of other creatures and gives herself over to them completely. One of the inherent fascinations in the showing Howard gives is the meta nature of playing the role of someone else playing a role.

So, in theory, we have the layers and the complexities of this whole patchwork of theater people and normal everyday humans playing their parts both real and fabricated based on the world around them. A certain ubiquitous Shakespeare quote is overwrought I know but it is also quite pertinent. “All the world is a stage and the people merely players.” We can break this film down to these more basic components as well.

Madeline’s involvement in her theater troupe not only facilitates this layering of a part on top of a part but it creates a visual dichotomy between the two women in her life who carry weight over her adolescent years. Her nervously concerned mother Regina (Miranda July) is always worried about her behavior, if she’s eating, taking her medicine, being safe about sex — all sorts of things. Her high-strung nature is a result of a daughter she deems to be unpredictable.

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Then, there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker) the drama director and empowering free spirit who continually encourages Madeline in her physical expression and touts her in the devotion she gives to the stage. In this carefree communal environment, the girl feels truly herself and at ease with the beings existing around her.

They do some of the familiar improv, turning the story of an incarcerated man into literal expression. They do photo shoots and costume runs with giant pig heads and garish ensembles. When they sit in a circle together sharing their emotions and insights I could not help but feel the portrait epitomized the stereotypical acting experiences seen in a show such as Community. Needless to say, someone like me repressed and stunted as I am, looks on such a showing with a skeptical eye.

In one solitary scene, Evangeline even sits down with Madeline and starts expounding upon the philosophy of Jung. All is chaos in the cosmos. In the disorder, there is an order and the pendulum perpetually swings between sense and nonsense. While not necessarily reassuring, perhaps these words allow us to piece together a certain perspective to see the world. Maybe…

It becomes increasingly apparent — certainly beginning with the opening shot — this is meant to be a very intimate film. The camera hugs Madeline’s face and really provides close-ups for just about everyone while simultaneously blurring the screen artistically with exposure techniques to allow light to constantly seep into the frame. That’s when we’re not literally inside the camera’s viewpoint. Audio is often being funneled to us with dulled or hazed effects as if we are seeing the world through interference and distractions like others do.

At one point the stage performance is about prison and then it is a metaphor and then it morphs against into a piece on mental illness until Evangeline literally turns into a performance of Madeline’s most intimate details thinking they are all part of a character named Zia. Of course, the mask is only Madeline. She becomes a daughter regurgitating the words of her mother — imprinted on her brain — in a very public forum and it becomes a bit too real.

Then, Madeline winds up seeing a different side of Evangeline, not unlike her own mother, and once more we have drolling adults communicating on an altogether different wavelength than the teenagers.

The inevitable happens and Madeline and her troupe create a near funhouse of performance art all overtaken by an idea and rebelling against the forms their fearless leader imparted to them.

There is a unique voice and a vision that is unlike most anything else. But I’m not sure it even knows what it is striving for. There’s not necessarily an issue with this and yet it does lack what we would ascertain to be a central conceit for the rest of the film to orbit around.

If I had not just If I had not just recently seen A Bread Factory I would say this movie existed in a stratosphere totally its own. Regardless, it boasts a wholly original perspective from director Josephine Decker coupled with a mesmerizing performance by Helena Howard.

Whether we know what to make of it or not is up for contention. I still haven’t decided if this point is really worth dwelling on. The onus should not always be on a film to provide answers and if that is the case Madeline’s Madeline is a success because it arguably offers something more valuable — food for thought. For now, I am content ruminating over my multitude of questions.

3.5/5 Stars

First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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“When life hands you conundrums you turn it into art” – Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher

The opening introduction of our character is nothing short of fantastic. He lights up a cigarette absent-mindedly, headphones plugged in to Tweedy only for his reverie to be broken by a patron telling him he can’t smoke inside. He responds bluntly, “I’ll put it out if you buy something.”

We know him instantly to be a man who doesn’t play popularity contests even when it would benefit him and his record shop. This is what the following piece of superfluous dialogue is implying as this offended customer says he just bought an album on Amazon instead.

Without hardly knowing anything about him, somehow we like this man behind the counter and simultaneously feel sorry for him. Surely, he can see the writing on the wall. The record shop, the trendy bastion of a bygone era, even in a neighborhood like Red Hook in Brooklyn, is probably on the way out. It is an endangered species and we as the populous have killed it.

This is not High Fidelity (2000). The record shop is no longer a place for buddy comedy with your ragtag band of musical connoisseurs quibbling over personal tastes and nonexistent romance. The niche begins to feel smaller and smaller. It has become even moreso a thing of the past. I recently watched the documentary on the rapid decline of Tower Records, fittingly entitled All Things Must Pass. There is a certain wistulness in acknowledging this irrefutible reality.

Like most indies of this day and age, Heart Beats Loud uses the same formula with quirky supporting characters who have their charms. The mother is a ditsy kleptomaniac who once had a career as a songstress. It feels like a blink and you miss it turn for the Blythe Danner.

There’s Toni Collette, the local landlord who rents Frank his space. They have a relationship that’s hard to pinpoint. Their kids are grown. They’re friends and they can talk to one another. Still, there’s something unspoken between them; it supplies some unnecessary romantic tension.

Surprise, suprise, there’s Ted Danson who (wink, wink) runs the local bar and plays the ever-present available listening ear for our hero to commiserate with. We all need that friend.  Frank’s daughter Sam has such a confidante too even as she tries to figure out her life and love in the context of adolescence. Fortuitously, while I like these folks, they hold nothing compared to the people at the center. Seeing as we spend the most time with the two Fishers it’s probably for the best.

The age-old inversion is also present. The adult seems to be acting out like a child even as his kid makes up the difference by acting mature beyond her years. In one particularly indicative scene, Frank bugs his daughter in her attempts to study so they can have a father-daughter jam sesh together. Because this is the summer before she will head across the country to UCLA. They are on the cusp of a new period of life. He hasn’t accepted it yet.

The story beats are nothing strange or sensational just as the music is catchy but not altogether supernal pop. However, the familiarity is actually quite nice and because we like these people and the places feel warm and welcoming, we want to spend time there. There need not be more.

Together their jam sessions bleed into the synthesis of songs from the heart. It’s how they bond and find a way to communicate when there is no other available wavelength open.  Movies like these allow those of us who adore music and cannot play or sing a lick, live vicariously through some else’s experience. It’s the best way I can describe it. The last film to carry me away on the sound waves with this much relish was Sing Street (2016).

It won’t win any awards and it will be dismissed by so many more and yet there will be a niche market for it — just like vinyl itself. I am thankful we still have actors like Nick Offerman, willing to make unassuming, passionate projects like this one.

In the end, a seemingly inconsequential decision winds up stirring up some notice as the song they cut together actually has some mild success under their moniker We Are Not a Band. There’s the giddy delight registering on Frank’s face upon hearing the song he made in his living room with his daughter playing in a local coffee shop. He’s as proud and as flabbergasted as can be even though no one else seems to understand his elation.

This is purely That Thing You Do! or The Commitments grade musicianship. It’s good but not virtuoso or magnified enough to get a large following. Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing. What could have been? Because even as the shop is having its final day and Sam gets ready to head out west, they get another opportunity.

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Someone is interested to monetize their band and tour it into something with legs. There is a moment where Frank genuinely wants this until he realizes it’s indicative of another issue. He needs a catharsis — a healthy, meaningful way to say goodbye to not only his shop but his daughter — and he gets it.

What more fitting way than a Last Waltz in the record store, except they’ve never even performed before. Still, they do it for the first and last time (maybe) and give it all they have for an audience of record hunters. The accolades and circulation were never important anyway.

They are in the pantheon surrounded by a hall of heroes. Some forgotten. Some not. I see Peter Frampton. Marvin Gaye. Lana Del Ray. The Beach Boys. Aretha. Bob Marley. Tom Waits. They’re all smiling down on these two people who love music. The personified joy is what it’s all about.

The message is succinct and we’ve heard it so many times before. Hearing it in the context of these people’s lives somehow gives it renewed resonance. Because it’s the message they need to hear and who knows, maybe some of us do as well.

Contentment is key. All change is not bad just as things of the past should not necessarily be ditched entirely for the new. Somewhere in between them all, between the record albums and the Spotify playlists, we should be able to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, the point of the music doesn’t change. It’s meant to bring us together.

3.5/5 Stars