Months in Review: September & October films 2018 (part 1)

I return to this blog of mine on the verge of crossing 200 posts (this will be my 197th). While 200 may seem like a big number at first, this is one that spans almost 8 years, thus revealing just how little I actually blog.

When I first approached the idea to start a blog, the mission was very different and my life was too. I had more time and more energy for blogging. The lofty goals I had in mind for this site belonged to that context alone.

Often, I like to talk about “life getting in the way of blogging”, or about being “too busy” to really dedicate myself to this pursuit. The truth is that there is always time, like my dad used to say. The problem is mostly about the relationship between effort and output.

In order for me to have the blog I would like, I’d need to de-prioritize certain things in my life that I’m not willing to. When I started this blog I didn’t quite comprehend how much work goes into a single post, especially when you care about what you’re putting out for the world to read. If I had known exactly how much time I would need, I would have perhaps never embarked on this journey.

Having said that, I have enjoyed it so far, even if my audience is about as numerous as the fingers in my hand. If I blogged to get a meaningful audience, I would have given this up a long time ago.

Now…to the topic at hand.

In the last two months I’ve watched 19 films. 10 in September and 9 in October. Currently, I stand at 95 new-to-me films for the year, which is just shy of the 100 films I should have watched to keep my average of 10 films per month. In terms of quality, only 4 of the last 19 films have scored a 4 out of 5, but with one entry getting a perfect score, only the 20th film I’ve given that score to.

Below a list of short reviews of the films watched in September. On part 2, which I will post in a few days, I will cover the films watched in October.

FIRST REFORMED (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

It is an encouraging sign when a film like First Reformed still gets made in today’s Hollywood. The film has the pace and simplicity of a different era, fitting in with the gritty realism that dominated 1970s American cinema. Unsurprisingly, the film’s writer and director, Paul Schrader, is a man whose work first gained notoriety back in that era, penning the script for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic: Taxi Driver. In First Reformed, Schrader seems to borrow a great deal from his early days. His work here is a sparse, male-centric, performance-driven drama that spends every minute of its running time interested in its lead, catching his every reaction and recording his every move. Our protagonist is Toller, the priest of a very small congregation in upstate New York, brilliantly played by Ethan Hawke.

The film opens with Toller putting pen to paper, writing a journal he is to keep for a year. It is obvious the diary will be a sort of escape valve through which he can record his thoughts, a sort of confessional, without having to actually share these private ruminations with others. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that Toller is a troubled man, with a tragic past and a drinking problem. As a priest, he is sometimes sought for comfort and wisdom, but he is in no way equipped to handle other people’s problems.

As soon as he meets Michael (Philip Ettinger), a troubled husband and soon-to-be-father, Toller’s mundane existence is rattled, shaking him out of his stupor, but also revealing the cracks in his soul.

While First Reformed study of Toller is nearly as fascinating as Schrader’s work with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, some of the director’s efforts are undone by his treatment of secondary characters. As important as Michael is to the story of Toller, his plight is only superficially explored. In a one-on-one scene that is riveting to watch for the most part, Michael striked me as a pathetic alarmist, and Schrader’s suggestion that his depression is attributable to his tragic environmental activism is a simplification to the subject of mental illness.

Esther, Michael’s pregnant wife, played by Amanda Seyfried, is another troublesome character. Like many other films written by men, she’s mostly a damsel in distress who, in the face of tragedy, seeks help from another man. Her reaction to tragedy is a cold and abrupt acceptance that, even in an unhappy relationship, feels at odds with the circumstances.

Ethan Hawke is Schrader’s muse though. The two create a character that feels “lived-in”, like he’s existed before we first meet him. Hawke plays him close to the vest, revealing little even as he pours his growing frustrations in his diary.

Aside from Ethan Hawke’s work in the Before trilogy, he has never been better. His work here that of a seasoned and mature actor at the peak of his craft.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (2018) [ 4/5 ]

Could privileged suburban boredom translate into four teenagers robbing valuable artifacts? That is the argument made in American Animals.

Directed by Bart Layton, the film is a fast-paced and gripping thriller that playfully mixes documentary-style interviews and a dramatic reenactment of a true story. To tell it, the film enlists a very capable foursome of young actors that give depth and complexity to a piece that can sometimes sacrifice it in order to maintain pace. The grunt of the work is carried by Barry Keoghan (previously seen in a career-making turn in The Killing of Sacred Deer) and Evan Peters (an almost criminally under-utilized actor with a continuing role in the American Horror Story franchise). Later they are joined by Blake Jenner (Everybody’s Got Some!!) and Jared Abrahamson (Netflix’s tv show Travelers) who, unlike the leads, don’t end up getting the benefit of a background story that could help explain or give weight to their actions.

Regardless of the script’s shortcomings, director Bart Layton makes an exciting piece of work that shares plenty in common with a Soderbergh-type heist film. American Animals mixes humor, with fast-paced storytelling in often engaging ways. Layton’s merit is to turn a mundane story about privileged kids into an exciting and clumsily funny film.

TALLULAH (2016) [ 3/5 ]

Tallulah is a tale about young women and motherhood. During the course of the film we meet three very different women, all of whom are experiencing some sort of crisis. First, there’s Tallulah (Ellen Page), a runaway who pretends to live happily as a drifter, whose boyfriend and road companion is finally getting tired living off of scraps. Then there’s Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a lonely and depressed new mother who fails to take care of her baby daughter as she struggles with loneliness and depression brought about by a failing marriage. Last but not least we meet Margo (Allison Janey ) a middle aged mother who ended up all alone in an apartment that doesn’t feel like home after her ex husband marries a man, and their son decides to join Tallulah on her excursion around the country.

The story that brings them all together is highly improbable surely, yet the film does little to dispel our disbelief. Tallulah’s decision-making has less to do with tragedy and loss, and more with an inability to come to grips with her emotions. As such, she remains an unlikable character throughout, even if Margo’s connection to her gives the film some heart.

Were it not for Allison Janey’s conflicted, complex and emotional role, Tallulah would feel like a sequel to Juno, had Ellen Page decided to dump his family and boyfriend after giving up her first baby.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas Top 250 Favorite Films

There’s a moment in this wonderful documentary on the life and work of Fred Rogers that asks the audience to observe a moment of silence. In over 30 years of watching films, I have never been asked to do anything, not to stand, not to sit, not to clap or sign. As much as cinema is anchored on an audience’s expectations and intelligence, the relationship has always been tacit and unidirectional. In keeping with Won’t You Be My Neighbor’s overall message, it makes sense for this very touching film to ask us to do some of the legwork, taking a moment to appreciate loved ones in the process.

What I find captivating and heart-warming about this film is that it seems like the natural continuation of Fred Roger’s tireless work in early childhood education. This is a film that goes well beyond the boundaries of a biopic to give us a lesson on civility without lecturing us. Rogers is not so much a subject, but a narrative inspiration to tell a larger and more important story.

At a time where the world seems intent on fighting against our true potential as a species, Won’t You Be My Neighbor couldn’t come at a more timely moment, filling us with hope and giving us a roadmap on how to harness that hope and goodness to put it in the service of children.

OCEAN’S EIGHT (2018) [ 3/5 ]

In the age of #metoo, studios have started to realize that inclusion and representation are also bankable at the box-office. The problem is that this new-found mainstream openness is not attached to new ideas. Instead, Hollywood looks to established franchises and gives them a spin. In the case of Ocean’s Eight, it simply meant replacing the male-dominated cast of the Sodebergh-led Ocean series with women. Not only was Ocean’s Eight tied back to the original by name and script, but also in terms of style and tone. Though I am happy we live in a world where these types of films are possible and audiences are increasingly receptive to them; I couldn’t help but feel cheated at Hollywood’s refusal to take bolder risks.

By rehashing the same formula, the film put me in the uncomfortable position of comparing the merits between directors and actors. In that comparison, Ocean’s Eight was bound to lose simply because director Gary Ross cannot Soderbergh (verb) better than Soderbergh himself.

THE PREDATOR (2018) [ 1.5/5 ]

The best thing I can say about The Predator is that it may be the last nail in the coffin of a once-thriving franchise.

Despite some attempts at making something new and fun that was still reminiscent of the 1980s film, director Shane Black, who penned the original Swarzenegger-led thriller, fails to give us either. Halfway through it, I found myself merely hoping it would be bad enough for me to enjoy. Sadly, the film wavered somewhere between campy and serious, whilst demystifying one of the most horrific creatures Hollywood has ever designed. Not even a very competent villain played by Sterling K. Brown was able to save this one.

THE SOLOIST (2009) [ 3/5 ]

Typically, I am one that defends artistic freedom and tries to defend the choices made by a film. At the same time, I also recognize that in the world that we live in today, this has become a harder task. Daily, we are almost pushed to take a stance, being either for or against something, as if every decision is either black or white.

I start my thoughts on The Soloist in this manner because this 2009 film is a perfect example of Hollywood making bad decisions by preserving the status quo. The film is both a stale piece of Oscar bait that takes safe decisions and, more importantly, it is a film that reinforces a bad message: a white male savior trying to rescue an unfortunate black man. Though I don’t think this is the film’s intended message, it is a telling piece of evidence were a case ever be brought to the Supreme Court that challenges Hollywood’s social responsibility when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual orientation.

After watching The Soloist I couldn’t help but think of one thing: Wouldn’t this be a much better film if the roles had been reversed? How many times have we seen a well-to-do black man helping a talented white man that is wasting away his talents? Imagine how much more interesting would it be had Jamie Foxx taken the role of the journalist, and Robert Downey Jr. that of the musical prodigy whose mental illness put him on the streets. Though I am against casting a film to exclusively advance a social agenda, there are many cases in which representation and role reversing can benefit a film greatly.

Having said that, I will commend the film’s attempt at dealing with the issue of mental illness in a more nuanced manner. I also appreciate the film’s attempt at touching upon the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles and other large urban areas in the United States.

THI MAI: ESCAPE FROM VIETNAM (2018) [ 2.5/5 ]

Thi Mai is an incredibly silly Hispanic comedy that plays like a long single-episode telenovela. It starts out rather well, with sharp comedic scenes and an early dramatic twist that gives the film its raison d’être. Unfortunately, Thi Mai feels like one of those movies that is born from a single idea, probably one that was pitched to studio executives inside a conference room, that was then confronted with the herculean task of making a feature piece from it.

The script, written by Marta Sanchez, reveals either the limits of the idea, which is challenged time and again by realistic practical matters, or by the inability of Sanchez to solve its conundrums.

One of the most frustrating things about Thi Mai is that it’s tonally and structurally bipolar. The film wavers from put-on moments of melodrama to comedy that sometimes borders on slapstick. Sadly, Thi Mai doesn’t have the skill nor the talent of someone like Roberto Benigni to pull it off. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the film makes light of the adoption process and can sometimes come within an inch of making racially insensitive generalizations.

HOT SUMMER NIGHTS (2016) [ 2.5/5 ]

Hot Summer Nights starts out rather promisingly with cool 1980s-type montages and silly voice-overs that help to give context in a very Goodfellas-kind-of-way. Timothee Chalamet (in a role that preceded his star turn in Call Me By Your Name) plays Daniel who, circa 1980, spends a summer away from his mother in upstate New York. Though his expectations are low and he realizes he is nothing but an outsider to Cape Cod’s high-class society, he is quick to strike a friendship with Hunter (Alex Roe), another outsider and the town’s “bad boy”. Despite Daniel’s obvious inexperience, the two quickly partner up to sell weed to the privileged. Shortly thereafter, Daniel meets McKayla (Maika Monroe), and is immediately smitten by her. As the film presents it, Daniel is a fish-out-water who, in a desperate attempt to fit in, lies and cheats his way into the drug selling business and gains the heart of a much more mature McKayla, who also happens to be Hunter’s sister. Does it all sound a little immature and soapy? It does because it is. Hot Summer Nights is little more than a messy coming-of-age film that occasionally disguises itself to be something more grown-up.

After laying the groundwork, the film weaves a tale of first love that, despite the efforts of Chalamet and Monroe, remains unconvincing. At the same time, Daniel and Hunter’s drug business begins to take off and so does their ambition. On the one hand Daniel is told to stay away from McKayla, while on the other she questions where Daniel’s cash comes from.

Having now seen dozens of films like it, I was able to see the writing on the wall from a mile out. In fact, there is nothing in Hot Summer Nights to distract us from its apparent and obvious ending.

In his feature film debut, director Elijah Bynum crafted a piece that borrows a great deal from disparate sources, without being able to give it his own cinematic stamp.

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