Months in Review: films of March & April (part 1)

In a year that has so far given us so many things to talk, argue and worry about, there was one thing everyone in Chicago seemed to agree on: Winter needed to end. So, here we are, after a reluctantly cold and snowy April, finally enjoying the first gush of summer breeze moments before the Groundhog was forced to quit its less than admirable job.

When it comes to the movies, both March and April were fruitful, having caught up with 20 new films in total, 10 on each month. Out of those 20 only 4 received a 4 out of 5 rating or higher, of which Isle of Dogs, Call Me by Your Name and Florida Project will be considered as candidates to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Essential Films.

Without further ado, below you will find short reviews of the new films I watched in March, followed a few days later (part 2) by those I managed to catch up with during April.

ANNIHILATION (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

On only his second feature director Alex Garland shows the kind of confidence and vision that it takes others many more years to develop. Annihilation, his latest film starring Natalie Portman, strikes a similar tone to Garland’s acclaimed debut: Ex Machina. Like its predecessor, Annihilation is a slow-burning, suspenseful and brainy sci-fi that slowly crawls toward a definitive climax. Garland, once again, displays a mastery of atmospheric cinema, creating something that is equally mysterious and irresistibly seductive.

The film gives us plenty of information within the first few scenes: a husband who suddenly reappears after being M.I.A. with a strange “alien” affliction that appears to be killing him, an “environmental disaster” of mysterious beginnings and implications, and a biologist and wife willing to sacrifice her well-being to find answers within this mysterious and apparently deadly alien disaster.

Though much of the film is about unpacking the alien mystery, it quickly reveals that the interest also lies in the slow unraveling of the truth about a marriage that was far less idyllic than initially portrayed.

While the set pieces have less of the claustrophobia and unpredictability that made Ex Machina such an intriguing piece, Annihilation makes up for most of its faults with an enchanting final sequence that is as good as some of the best scenes in the history of sci-fi.

THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

Much like the film that inspired it, The Disaster Artist is filled with good intentions and high hopes but with an obvious incapacity to capture the conviction and the spirit of Tommy Wiseau, the writer, star, director, producer and editor of the 2003 cult film The Room.

Contrary to most critics, I find the performance given by James Franco no more than a crude imitation. Franco goes so large that he makes Wiseau feel like a childlike caricature who inhabits a world of adults who, for the most part, choose to play along. Though one can see the irreverence and eccentricity of the real Wiseau from even a mile away, I couldn’t help but feel that The Disaster Artist exaggerates things that it doesn’t need to, while it plays down the conflict and difficulty that Wiseau must have endured in the making of The Room.

An immature and only occasionally funny film.

WONDERSTRUCK (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A charming little film that fails to ever take off completely, hinting at a fantastical and climactic resolution that never comes.

I found Wonderstruck to be the kind of film that struggles to enchant, perhaps having to trim its initial grand vision to fit a rather modest production budget.

Even then, I appreciated some of film’s choices, most especially how director Todd Haynes and his team present the world as seen and “heard” from the vantage point of two deaf kids.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ 250 Essential Films

As a gay man who has been hopelessly in love, Call Me By Your Name is one of those rarest of things that speaks to me directly, leaving an immediate lasting impression that outweighs other considerations about the film.

Call Me By Your Name is also a different kind of gay film, one that is cavalier and almost casual about being a young homosexual in a conservative and mostly religious world.

While there are instances in which the film heightens the relationship by highlighting its nearly forbidden quality, what really comes through is that the protagonists’ own inhibitions and not the ones of the people around them, give the romance urgency and an unavoidable air of tragedy.

In the film, the context plays a big role. The young lovers meet in an idyllic and tranquil small Italian town. Its colorful inhabitants offering an occasional respite, while the ever present Italian sun makes the near constant shirtlessness feel natural and necessary even if still intentionally provocative.

As beautifully shot as Call Me By Your Name is, the burden of the film is carried almost entirely by its protagonists. For that, Luca Guadanigno enlisted a very good Armie Hammer, and a then unknown Timothee Chalamet, whose effortlessness in front of the camera offers us the kind of preternatural star-making performance that is seen only rarely in a feature film.

THE SQUARE (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

If one thing can be said about the work of Ruben Ostlund is that it invites further viewings. His films are filled with purposeful intent, but his goals are varied and challenging to dissect upon first inspection.

Like his previous film (2016’s Force Majoure), Ostlund is fond of introducing easily emasculated male archetypes whose public persona is not much more than an act of self-delusion. Unlike the Scandinavian director’s prior feature, The Square takes surrealist detours that are engaging and cinematically bold despite adding little in terms of story and subtext.

The Square is a film that takes plenty of liberties with form and genre and it is the director’s most experimental work to date. Nevertheless, I would argue that while The Square remained engaging and darkly comedic, it is no more interesting than Ostlund’s preceding more minimalistic and incisive work.

GRACE OF MONACO (2014) [ 2.5/5 ]

Melodrama and implausibility are some of the traits that define this beautifully shot film by director Olivier Dahan. There is plenty to marvel at on the screen, from the costumes to the opulence of the royal family’s grounds in Monte Carlo. While the film never ceases to be eye candy, Grace of Monaco is also stale and void of personality. There are plot twists, “big” dialogue-heavy scenes, odd cameos and grand speeches. Per Hollywood standards, Grace ticks all of the boxes of a successful production. Unfortunately, the film reduces a historic political event to a simplistic and rather improbable soap opera centered around Grace Kelly’s first few years as part of the royal family of the Monegasque city-State.

FRANCES HA (2012) [ 3.5/5 ]

As frustrating and immature as Great Gerwig’s title character can be, Noah Baumbach’s much-admired 2012 film feels, when at its best, like a smart encapsulation of educated and young American adults. In Frances we see the sort of aimlessness of purpose and endless daydreaming that our more lucky and privileged youth seem to suffer from, going from job to job, living with one or more roommates, and with the inability to commit to anything or anyone for a sustained amount of time.

In doing so, Frances remains just interesting enough, consumed by self-awareness and egocentrism, but also finding opportunities to smile at misfortune.

I only wish that the film spent as much time and effort showing us Frances’ mature turnaround. Had it been so, the film’s ending would have perhaps felt less neat and convenient.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 [ 3/5 ] (2017)

There is plenty of darkness in this engrossing yet terribly violent film by director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk). The film is anchored by Vince Vaughn in the most surprising performance of his career. He plays Bradley Thomas, a down-on-his-luck middle aged man who, in the face of adversity, decides to rejoin the ranks of a local drug trafficker. Brawl is a tragedy of epic proportions, first as a statement about the economic frustration of the lower classes, and then as a more matter-of-fact study on male violence and brutality, set against an indomitable quench for vengeance.

As enveloping, tragic and smartly paced as the film can be, the tension and suspense that dominates the first half of the movie slowly cedes space to senseless violence, until blood and revenge-fueled male testosterone take over. Said violence would not be something to criticize if it felt as organic and necessary as it does at first, opting for unapologetic brutality and gore when the film did not need it.

Please leave your comments below and look for part 2 in a few days with my short reviews on the films I watched in April.

2 thoughts on “Months in Review: films of March & April (part 1)

  1. Annihilation has suspense as to the mystery and agree the lighthouse is the best scene. I liked Portman’s anxious performance, but to me a minor sci-fi and a hodgepodge of (superior) influences. Good but not quite great. Had a similar reaction to Ex Machina

    CMBYN did a great job of selling Italy as a beautiful location, the love story was believable and affecting. Some were put off by the age difference but didn’t bother me.

    Force Majeure was more focused, but The Square had some great moments

  2. The Square… man, what a singular thing that was. You’re so right that Ruben Ostlund’s films demand repeat viewings. I didn’t like The Square as I was watching it, but I couldn’t get it out of my head for months after. That says something, you know?

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