Sunday, September 02, 2018

Summer movie roundup / Fall 2018 movie preview

It’s too early to tell, but 2018 may be one of the rare years in which the summer ends up being a stronger season for the movies than the fall. Back at the beginning of this summer, I could name many more movies I was looking forward to than I can now in the fall lineup – and amazingly, most of those summer movies either met or exceeded my expectations. It’s part of a larger trend I’ve noticed in the last few years of a higher proportion of original, high-quality (and yes, Oscar-worthy, though still not often Oscar-rewarded) films being released over the summer to counterbalance the budget-busting blockbusters. I very much hope this continues – though not at the cost of a weaker fall slate.

In any event, here's what I would recognize if I were giving out prizes for the summer of 2018. Please note that I have not yet seen First Reformed, The Wife, The Little Stranger, We the Animals, or the little documentaries that could, RBG and Won't You Be My Neighbor. Those omissions in themselves are a testament to what a great summer it's been for movie lovers.

BEST FILM: Blindspotting
Of the two critically acclaimed Oakland-based films that slayed at Sundance this year and were released in theaters this summer (the other was “Sorry to Bother You”), I preferred this one. A sharp, funny, and deeply affecting tale of a pair of lifelong best friends – one white, one black – forced to confront the impact of a gentrifying city on their relationship, it distills many of the racial and cultural tensions roiling American society today more sensitively, if less provocatively, than the splashier and flashier STBY. Daveed Diggs (OG Lafayette/Jefferson from Broadway’s Hamilton) is sensational as the black friend, and he's well matched by real-life friend and co-writer Rafael Casal as the well-meaning but bad-news buddy he can’t seem to quit.

SLEEPER AWARD (That’s “sleeper” as in “unexpected hit,” not sleep-inducing): Tie between Puzzle and Hearts Beat Loud
Both of these two quiet, lovely character studies center on middle-aged folks (played by Kelly Macdonald and Nick Offerman, respectively) who suddenly get a chance to see their previously undiscovered talents recognized by a wider audience. Both protagonists find themselves having to deal with the effects of their newfound success on their relationships with their loved ones. And to their credit, both films depict these shifting personal dynamics with remarkable delicacy, making the ostensible external plot arc – i.e., will they win fame & fortune? – feel beside the point.

BEST OVERALL CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE: The 50th anniversary “unrestored” 70mm tour of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, courtesy of self-appointed champion of analog film Christopher Nolan. What was interesting and thought-provoking on video becomes utterly mesmerizing and immersive on the big screen with big sound.

Based on the crazy true story of a black Colorado cop in the ’70s who, with the help of a white Jewish colleague, helped infiltrate the local KKK, Spike Lee’s latest joint manages to entertain, educate, and rouse at the same time. Part caper film, part comedy of (racist) buffoons, part period piece, but mostly a hard look at the racial politics of that time and how (not) far we’ve come since then, the film really hammers home the parallels with the present day. As a result it's a bit too on the nose at times, but remains undeniably powerful.

A landmark for Asian American cinema, the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestseller also happens to be a whole lot of breezy fun. Even better, it reveals a surprisingly nuanced cultural subtext beneath its glossy rom-com and wealth-porn trappings. Better still, it streamlines and improves on the book, giving Michelle Yeoh and Awkafina so much richer material to work with in their characters that they both almost steal the show. Almost, but not quite – Constance Wu is a delight as the eminently relatable heroine in a world that's decidedly foreign to most of us. RUNNER-UP: Ocean's Eight

Millennial comedian-turned-filmmaker Bo Burnham delivers a wonderfully observed depiction of adolescence from the perspective of Generation Instagram that also made me profoundly thankful (1) I’m not an 8th grader and (2) do not have a kid in 8th grade. The film’s secret weapon is Elsie Fisher, who’s phenomenal and absolutely, one-hundred-percent convincing as the main character – I kept alternating between wanting to cringe, hug her, and shake her, which feels about right for a girl that age.

Yes, underrated. Sure, it’s Star Wars “lite” and not everything about it works – but it’s still a highly enjoyable jaunt, free of the need to sustain the epic pretensions of the main-line narrative. More of this, please, if we must have more Star Wars movies.

GUILTIEST PLEASURE: Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again
I cannot in good conscience claim that this was a sequel we needed or anything other than a terrible movie qua movie, with entire sequences that reminded me of the random karaoke video footage you see in Korean noraebang. And yet: the combo of catchy ABBA tunes, gorgeous Grecian island scenery, and attractive stars clearly having a blast singing and dancing their hearts out in said glorified karaoke video proves inexplicably and irresistibly infectious. It also converted me into a full-on fan of Lily James, who may look nothing like a young Meryl Streep but whose million- dollar smile, girlish charm, and sweet pipes basically carry the movie.


And now, here are the movies I’m most looking forward to this fall:

Young singer-songwriter meets and falls in love with big star who helps launch her to fame, even as his own career bottoms out thanks to booze abuse and other self-destructive impulses. Sure, this movie’s been made before – three times, in fact – and Judy Garland in particular leaves big shoes to fill. But don’t tell me you’re not curious to see how Lady Gaga does in her major film debut? Early word is she’s terrific, as is director and co-star Bradley Cooper.

FIRST MAN (Oct. 12)
Wunderkund director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) turns his talents to the story of Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) and that “one small step for man, one huge leap for mankind” of nearly half a century ago. In interviews Chazelle’s emphasized how much he wanted to evoke just how perilous, almost foolhardy a venture man and mankind were undertaking with Apollo 11, and what a BFD it was and still is. As such, the film looks to be in the vein of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, which can only be a good thing.

A black teenage girl (Amandla Stenberg, best known as Rue from The Hunger Games) spends most of her life code-switching between her urban mostly-black neighborhood and her heavily white prep school – until she witnesses a cop shoot and kill one of her black male friends, galvanizing her to speak truth to power. Adapted from the well-received YA novel by Angie Thomas and directed by George Tillman Jr. (Barber Shop, Soul Food), it’s obviously all too timely subject matter-wise, but promises an emotional resonance that goes beyond the current moment.

BURNING (Oct. 26)
Lee Chang-Dong wowed Cannes this year with his new film, loosely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. What starts out as a psychological drama about a working-class Korean man who gets entangled with a former female classmate and a much richer peer (Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead”) morphs into a twisty mind-fuck of a mystery with a reportedly shocking ending.

Nothing about this movie suggests it’s going to deviate from the usual tropes for famous musician/band biopics. But Queen’s music sells itself, and I’m curious to see if Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) can pull off portraying a figure as sui generis as Freddie Mercury.

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) stars as a gay youth who’s pressed by his fundamentalist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) into a gay conversion program. Adapted from the memoir by Garrard Conley, the film’s a good bet for some powerhouse performances and potential Oscar attention. Director Joel Edgerton (who also stars as the head of the program) may not be as well known as his co-stars, but he continues to prove himself one to watch, both as an actor (Loving, Midnight Special, The Great Gatsby, Warrior) and as a director (The Gift).

WIDOWS (Nov. 16)
It’s a simple enough concept, but with intriguing possibilities: after four men die trying to rob a bank, their widows join forces to finish the job. While the movie appears to be derived from a 1980s British crime series with the same name and premise, count on writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame, Hunger), co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and an exemplary cast led by the great Viola Davis to turn it into something more complex than a simple heist film.

Say what you like about Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster, Dogtooth), he’s got a distinct style – his own special sauce of deadpan absurdist satire – and an unmatched talent for revealing the arbitrary nature of human social norms. His new film looks lighter and more accessible than the horror-tinged Killing of a Sacred Deer (which I could neither convince anyone to see nor bring myself to see alone), focusing on the rivalry between two 18th century English noblewomen (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) for the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Don’t be fooled by the quasi-historical subject matter, though; it’s still Lanthimos, which pretty much guarantees he’ll find a way to make you squirm.

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) directs an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel? Yes, please, even if the novel (which I haven’t read) – about a young black couple who are torn apart after the man is falsely accused of rape – is almost certainly a downer. It may not be pretty, but you can bet it’ll be beautiful.

It’s not a remake, it’s a sequel! And in my book, Emily Blunt is “practically perfect” casting as the unflappable magical nanny. Add in Lin-Manuel Miranda as Bert 2.0 (ok, Bert protégé, or something like that), Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw as grown-up Jane and Michael Banks, and Meryl Streep as Mary’s eccentric cousin, and you’ve got a promising recipe for a pleasant return trip to Cherry Tree Lane – even if there seems small chance of topping the original, which remains my favorite Disney movie of all time. If nothing else, this seems like a good holiday outing for the family.