Best Movies for Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s that time of year again, so here are some movies to watch with your significant other. Or by yourself. No shame in that. You can view this as “Best Valentine’s Day Movies” or more accurately “Best Romance Movies”, a genre that is too often overlooked because of the swaths of formulaic rom-coms you have to filter through to find the hidden gems. Fortunately, I’ve done that work for you.

In the Mood for Love

The overwhelming atmosphere of romantic melancholy of In the Mood for Love will envelop you to the point you never want to leave. While not a fast movie by any means or a film of action, it draws you in through the looks in the eyes of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The restraint in the direction and acting make this film. Unlike other movies that rely on melodramatic professions of love in the rain to get a point across (guess what movie I’m talking about here), this movie uses a tension that suffuses every frame. The hues of red, the ornate textile patterns, and the sultry sound of Nat King Cole’s voice coalesce into something greater than any other romance I have ever seen. There is something in the air and the conflict between desire and duty, passion and propriety, are entrancing. Likely my favorite movie ever, romance or not.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

The Before Series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight)

The Before series captures so many aspects of romance. The first movie, Before Sunrise, is about the initial spark of love. The infatuation that comes with connecting with someone on a level you didn’t think was possible. Before Sunset, picks up 9 years later with the characters reuniting. This movie still contains the connection of Sunrise, but adds in the regret that comes with age. What if things had worked out? Where would they be now? Do they still have a chance together after all these years? Finally, Before Midnight takes place another 9 years later. Unlike almost any other film franchise, the Before series has improved with each iteration. Each new movie retains the allure of the previous while adding new complexities and Before Midnight takes this to a new level. It is the funniest, best written chapter but also expands into new territory as it explores the difficulties of long term relationships. Your own personal ranking of the films may vary, but you’ll never regret spending time with Jesse and Celine. Here’s to another film 9 years after Before Midnight. I don’t know how they could improve on it, but that’s also what I said after Before Sunset.

[Available to stream on Amazon VOD]

3-Iron

Director Kim Ki-Duk is well known for the extreme violence of his films. 3-Iron represents a departure from that trend. The story follows a young man who breaks into people’s houses while they are out of town that ends up rescuing an abused housewife. She becomes his partner in (mostly harmless) crime. The two move between empty houses each night, never taking anything and instead doing household repairs or chores in exchange for their uninvited stay. They never speak a word and their relationship slowly develops through the actions they take to look out for each other. The movie has an otherworldly, almost ghostly quality to it and indeed the latter half of the film shifts into the ethereal. If you follow the film to where Kim wants it to go, you will be rewarded with a haunting, understated romance.

[Available to stream on Amazon VOD]

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were at the height of their careers with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is about a couple that decides to have their memory of each other erased after a messy end to their relationship. Gondry’s arts-and-crafts practical effects make the transitions between the real and surreal found in Kaufman’s writing seamless and allow the characters to explore their true desires. Eternal Sunshine succeeds based on its ability to convey the emptiness that can be left by someone. Erasing their memory may have removed the dissolution of their relationship but it couldn’t fill the hole left by each other’s absence. The film shows the lengths people will go to preserve their memories of love, even if they come with memories of heartbreak.

[Available to stream on Amazon VOD]

Notting Hill

Yes, it’s a Hugh Grant film, but you know what? It’s the best Hugh Grant film. Grant is at his most likable here as the average guy owner of a used travel book shop who mistakenly bumps into and starts a relationship with a world famous actress (Julia Roberts). Is it a little cheesy? Yes, but the schmaltz is sincere and always endearing. The interactions between Grant and Roberts are sweet and the problems they face, despite the crazy scenario, are eminently relatable. Notting Hill is a statement that, no matter their station in life or related complications, all relationships are just a connection between two people, in this case, “just a boy” and “just a girl”.

[Available to stream on Amazon VOD]

About Time

Also written by Richard Curtis and this time directed by him too, About Time features many of the standard Curtis tropes, but with a slight sci-fi twist. Domnhall Gleeson plays the Hugh Grant character, but is able to put his own goofy charm into the role. At the age of 21, Tim (Gleeson) learns that the male members of his family can travel in time. His initial actions are what you would expect of a man his age. He goes back in time again and again to undo the mistakes he makes as he dates Mary (Rachel McAdams). But soon About Time transforms into something more. It shifts its focus from romance to family. There is a reason the movie isn’t called About Love. Curtis expands his scope to examine the value of familial bonds, the consequences of actions, and the joys overlooked in everyday life. If you are a stickler for plot holes, you will hate this movie. About Time sets up and then proceeds to ignore every one of its rules about time travel, but it’s hard to fault Curtis for this decision. He understands that sci-fi was never really about aliens or space ships, it was about using a premise to explore emotions not encountered in regular life. If you can look past the plot holes and instead look to the emotions experienced by the characters, you’ll find a deep, surprisingly life-affirming adventure.

[Available to stream on Amazon VOD]

Chungking Express

Chungking Express, also by In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar-Wai, approaches love from a different perspective. Composed of 2 stories of Hong Kong cops coming off of breakups, the film is looser and more improvisational. Unlike the characters of In the Mood for Love, these people are in their early twenties and the film’s style reflects their point in life. Their future is uncertain, but hopeful. Wong’s signature longing is still present here, but more optimistic and sprinkled with affectionate humor. The characters may not know what is in store for them, but they’ll keep trying for love regardless.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

Obvious Child

Jenny Slate (Saturday Night Live) plays Donna, a twentysomething comedian who doesn’t remotely have her life together. When a one-night stand has unexpected consequences, she is forced to reevaluate her life choices and forms an unlikely relationship. Slate’s honest, self-deprecating humor makes her character incredibly endearing, even when she makes bad decisions, and her gradual progression to responsibility is heartwarming. Jake Lacy (Miss Sloane) as the romantic interest is sweet and kind with the subtle nudging needed to move her in the right direction. The film deals with serious subject matter but balances it with sarcastic comedy and the gentle warmth of a growing romance.

[Available to stream on Amazon VOD]

Brooklyn

The newest entry on this list, Brooklyn, is a period romance about finding a sense of belonging through a relationship. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant, moves to the US only to find herself horribly homesick until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian-American. The two have instant chemistry and their magnetic performances make you root for the characters as their relationship faces struggles. John Crowley directs his actors to gentle, intimate interactions. In particular, Eilis’s articulate educated speech contrasts with Tony’s stumbling dialogue for adorably awkward moments. Their soft-spoken demeanor combined with the polite manners of the time make for an incredibly charming courtship.

[Available to stream on Amazon VOD]

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Sundance 2018): True Compassion

In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made it into a second season, much less 31. As the film notes, it has, on paper, the makings of a complete failure. The production values are cheap and incredibly plain, the pacing is deliberate, and there are no pratfalls or easy humor. Comparing it to a film like Minions shows how it goes against everything we expect from entertainment made for children. Yet, despite this, the show not only persisted but made an indelible cultural impact on generations of viewers.

Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker behind 20 Feet from Stardom, wisely focuses on this impact rather the man himself. This isn’t a traditional biopic. It does include background on Rogers’ early life and his family, but Neville is more interested in the ideas behind the show. He covers how Rogers had clear goals with his content. He wanted to help children grow and deal with the issues they may be facing, to an almost radical degree. The film pulls footage from the earliest episodes in the late 60s and early 70s where he explicitly talks about topics ranging from assassination to Watergate – on a children’s show! It was his direct tackling of issues that allowed him to help children without ever talking down to them.

Mr. Rogers’ genuine kindness comes through every frame of the film.

The film also addresses several common questions related to Mr. Rogers. The most common of which is of course: “Is he really like that?” The answer is an unequivocal yes. Neville does his research and includes interviews from Rogers’ wife, children, and collaborators on the show all of whom attest that he was indeed the man he appeared to be on screen. The film disproves several ludicrous rumors about Rogers’ background, but also examines why these rumors even existed in the first place. The sad truth is that the questions about his background come from a place of disbelief. How can someone really be that kind? It’s a shame that our first instinct is to doubt someone rather than celebrate their virtues and Neville points out how Rogers’ consistent behavior and beliefs caused many, especially those closest to him, to reevaluate their lives.

Ultimately, the message behind Fred Rogers’ show can be found in the film’s original title. It was initially called It’s You I Like after a song frequently performed on the series. Neville shows that Rogers wanted children to believe in their own value and feel loved, regardless of where they came from, and used his show as an entryway into their homes. Through countless interviews and fan interactions, Neville reiterates how this message of self-worth changed the lives of so many. Children heard his words as if being spoken directly to them. In some of the film’s many emotional moments, adults who grew up with the show thank Rogers’ for the influence he had on their lives and his profound effect becomes apparent.

At the end of my screening, the director shared the one requirement given to him by Rogers’ widow, “Don’t make him a saint”. Neville carefully avoids this trap because it would lessen Rogers’ impact. Saints and their actions are beyond the realm of regular humans and portraying Rogers as such would have absolved us of our own responsibility. Instead, Neville aims and succeeds in showing that the legacy Rogers left behind and the central emotion behind his life’s work is one we all can and should strive for: true, human compassion for all those around us.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (Sundance 2018)

When news broke that Robin Williams had committed suicide in 2014, the world was shocked. How could a man that brought laughter into the lives of so many be depressed to the point of taking his own life? Given his fame and the global response to his passing, it was inevitable that someone would take a deeper look into his life and director Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) and HBO Films have done just that. The documentary follows Williams from his childhood to his early comedy career to his dramatic roles later in life and features several interviews with loved ones as well as footage from many of his performances.

The excerpts from Williams’ career prove one thing: he was a comedic genius. Each of his colleagues talks about how electric his energy was and the clips show how he could extemporize and create new jokes at any moment. It’s a never-ending joy to watch him perform and a delight to see how hilarious he can be even off the stage and when not on camera. A great moment shows him heckling the crew for an interview for telling him that his hair is slightly tussled and exemplifies how quickly he could turn the slightest comment into a laugh out loud moment with seemingly no effort. The documentary does a solid job of showing his rise to fame and the performances that led to each step in his career.

The film shows how Williams could steal the spotlight in even his guest appearances.

Through the film’s many interviews, we get a better sense of who his closest friends were. The most touching of these are with his eldest son, Zak, and Billy Crystal. His son provides a glimpse into how Williams was around his family and the effect that needing to entertain the public had on his private relationships. Billy Crystal, to my surprise, appears to have been Williams’ best friend and had a long, loving friendship with him. Crystal, along with some very personal voicemails left by Williams, explore some of the isolation that Williams felt. The candid nature of both interviews and clear affections each individual had for Williams can at times make the film almost hard to watch. Both are still very much in pain as they talk about Williams, but their confessions provide the deepest insight into the comedian’s life.

The major failing of the film is that despite its overlong runtime it doesn’t explore much of Williams’ psyche. We can infer some of the pain he must have faced before his tragic passing and there is evidence that he had been dealing with depression his entire life, but we’re left wanting for a better understanding of his state of mind. What pain was he dealing with? Why did he feel so alone when there were clearly many that loved him? Films about comedians, whether fiction or documentaries, often reiterate that being a comedian can be excruciating with several secretly being depressed. With Williams’ potentially falling into this category, providing more detail into his thoughts would have helped explain this unfortunate trend. As it is, Come Inside My Mind, offers sufficient information about Williams’ rise to the upper echelons of comedy and plenty of hilarious clips but, ironically, doesn’t include the desired depth into his thoughts.

3/5 stars.

Revenge (Sundance 2018): Fun, Cathartic Violence

In a PG-13 world filled with safe, widely appealing films, Revenge sticks out like a sore thumb. From first time French director Coralie Fargeat, the film is a rape-revenge story with a uniquely empowering spin. It opened to rave reviews at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to the point that Sundance made an exception and allowed it into their Midnight film lineup despite the fact it had already debuted at another festival. At a remote and luxurious house, Jennifer (Matilda Lutz; Rings) spends a weekend with her wealthy – and married – lover Richard until a couple of his hunting buddies arrive unexpectedly. The four drink and party together until she is raped by one of Richard’s friends. When they try to cover up the crime, she escapes only to return with a score to settle.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Fargeat keeps the tone of the film light. The sexual violence is, thankfully, not shown in detail and the movie instead focuses on Jennifer’s actions. This subgenre has always been filled with issues of exploitation and even misogyny and the director knows that. She completely plays into the tropes of these films with Jennifer’s introduction being a ridiculous satire of more leery movies. Jennifer joins the film with sun-kissed hair, wearing a bikini, and even sucking on a lollipop – an obvious wink at the Lolita trope so many female characters are subjected to.  As the lead, Lutz is able to shoulder the transformation from objectified trophy to relentless killer. Later in the film, her weary, but focused expressions show her conviction. There is a slight issue with her accent. Jennifer is supposed to be American, but that is never convincing with Lutz’s forced diction. Fortunately, it rarely holds the film back. After the violence begins, our heroine’s appearance completely changes into a determined killer and it is the male characters that become exaggerated.

Lutz makes a stark transformation from her initial appearance.

Again, the director plays up their villainy to comedic effect. The male cast becomes increasingly gross and lecherous with their own incompetence becoming more apparent with every scene. Fargeat isn’t interested in subtlety. She has clear intentions on how the audience should feel about each character and uses those feelings to justify the violence to come. When Jennifer comes back to hunt down her attackers, Fargeat relishes each stab and gunshot. Every death leads to equal parts cringing and laughing as the extravagant suffering plays out.

More than anything, the film has a love for bloodshed. Every injury is shown in grisly detail far beyond the realm of reality. Cuts spew blood to the point that characters are literally tripping in their own fluids. For some, this may lessen the impact of the film. Characters, particularly Jennifer, undergo major injuries and keep fighting with what should be incapacitating wounds, but they continue until the director wrings out every last drop of blood. It may not be the gritty, realistic survival story some are looking for, but Revenge provides the fun, cathartic violence that genre film fans will love without falling into the gender representation issues that are often tied to this type of story.

3/5 stars.

Lady Bird (2017): Honest Transition to Adulthood

After starring in and often co-writing several independent comedies and dramas, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) finally makes her solo directorial debut. Having worked with many talented directors, her style bears some similarities to her previous collaborators, especially Noah Baumbach, but she has a voice all her own. Her first outing confirms her as a genuine talent able to bring intimate stories to life. Lady Bird follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan; Brooklyn) through her last year of high school as she deals with the trials and tribulations that come along with transitioning to adulthood and independence.

With her vibrant reddish hair and anarchic mindset, Lady Bird is the epitome of an awkward teen. She is clearly an intelligent young woman, but doesn’t have good grades or the right look and attitude to fall into the popular crowd. She wants to escape Sacramento and go to a college on the east coast, but doesn’t have the resume or money to do so. She longs to become someone more than she is. Someone more sophisticated than her current self. Ronan plays Lady Bird as equal parts defiant and confused as she stumbles through the ups and downs of her life. There are moments when her American accent falters, particularly when yelling, but overall it holds up nicely. She is essentially a younger version of the character type that Gerwig almost exclusively plays and her youth, and the naivete that comes with it, make her flaws all the more sympathetic.

Lady Bird’s often explosive relationship with her mother is the central conflict of the film.

Gerwig may have created the first coming of age story about a millennial, by a millennial. From the introduction of cell phones – rich kids first, of course – to the Justin Timberlake songs in the background of a party, the details of the setting ring painfully true to anyone who grew up in the period. Despite being shot digitally, Gerwig adds a noticeable film grain and a uses a softer focus that drenches the film in her nostalgia for the past. While she has stated that the film is not based on specific events from her life, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are watching a fictionalized version of her own adolescence.

More than anything else, Lady Bird feels honest. Gerwig’s approach to her characters is reminiscent of the great Edward Yang (Yi Yi). She exposes the flaws, beauty, and heartbreak of ordinary people, normally hidden from view. Lady Bird’s struggles at school, with boys, and, most of all, her complicated relationship with her mother have a gentle, but raw veracity. Her bland suburban life isn’t glamorized, and each moment is immensely relatable. She may be deliberately contrarian, but she does so in a way that is too familiar for us to fault her. Each outburst or fight with her mom comes from deep-seeded insecurity. As a teenager facing adulthood, Lady Bird is searching for belonging in a changing world and Gerwig has a deep compassion for journey. Her sensitive touch and nostalgic tone make Lady Bird a beautiful, refreshingly honest, and poignant coming of age story for a new generation.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Snark and Sentimentality

To prevent her daughter’s murder from falling out of the public eye and increase the chance of finding the culprit, Mildred (Frances McDormand; Fargo), a jumpsuit-wearing, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed mom, buys the titular billboards. She details the horrific crime and simultaneously places the blame for the lack of justice on the shoulders of the beloved local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson; Zombieland). Chaos follows as local policeman try to save face, local townspeople retaliate, and Mildred doubles down on her cause. Many will compare this film to Fargo because of McDormand and the small-town murder, but this is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) signature brand of humor, distinct from the Coens. Mildred’s caustic behavior and McDonagh’s penchant for finding comedy in the macabre put it in a category of its own.

Without a doubt, this is McDormand’s film. There are few people who would be brash enough to knowingly anger and take on their entire town, but McDormand shows the tenacity and blatant disregard needed to make Mildred believable. As she faces the fallout from her actions, Mildred’s relentless pursuit of her goal and her choice, delectably obscene retorts are a joy to watch. At same time, she is still a mother suffering from the loss of her child and McDormand is able to display the subtle cracks of pain in Mildred’s otherwise thorny demeanor.

Mildred can stare down anyone that gets in her way.

For the first time in his film career, McDonagh tries to infuse some of the emotion from his best plays (read The Pillowman if you haven’t). In his previous films, the snarky, almost crass language, while often hilarious, prevented his stories from having a greater emotional impact. In Three Billboards, he supplements his humor with grief. The pain of a mother losing her daughter softens Mildred’s abrasiveness and prevents her aggressive, often militant actions from turning her into an outright unlikable character, but McDonagh finds most success in Willoughby’s story. Despite his setup as an incompetent police chief, Willoughby’s true nature is much more caring. As the terminally ill town leader and, more importantly, a father and husband, his inescapable fate becomes synonymous with the outcome of Mildred’s case. Willoughby has been searching for the killer, but, like with his cancer, his efforts haven’t made a difference. A short interlude where he ponders his demise will draw tears from most viewers. His gradual accretion of depth in the midst of the film’s otherwise eccentric antics is an unexpected, but welcome punch to the gut.

The effect of this gravitas is hindered by McDonagh’s control of tone. Rather than mixing the humor with the heart, these two emotions exist within separate spheres of influence. They don’t actively clash, but the disparate tones almost seem like different takes on the same story. Some scenes feature Mildred cursing like a sailor while others show the open wounds created by her daughter’s passing, but almost never both in the same scene. This is ultimately what prevents Three Billboards from reaching greatness. The humor of the film is still enjoyable and the grief shown has an impact, but without blending the two, McDonagh can’t achieve the complexity and balance needed to tackle the subject matter.

3/5 stars.

The Square (2017): High Art Satire

The Cannes film festival is the epitome of high art filmmaking which makes this year’s Palme d’Or winner an unusual pick. Winners tend to be serious dramas, genre-film homages, or more experimental art films – not comedies. And definitely not comedies that make fun of art. Following up another Cannes-prize winning film, Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) takes aim at the upper end of society with The Square. Chief museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) has his day ruined when his phone and wallet are stolen on the way to work. This incident is the first of many steps towards a gradual disruption of his life.

The world of high art is a polarizing setting. Artists and museum curators are constantly trying to challenge the status quo and push their work into new arenas while others remain absolutely baffled at how anyone could spend time or money on what seems like everyday objects. As Christian explains to an eager reporter named Anne (Elizabeth Moss; The Handmaiden’s Tale), “if we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?” Östlund understands the borderline lunacy and pompousness that comes with post-modern art and creates scenes where the veneer of sophistication is broken by simple questions. This culminates in an extended performance art exhibit where motion capture actor Terry Notary (War for the Planet of the Apes) enters a black-tie dinner at the museum and terrorizes the guests by acting like an ape. Ever-committed to his art, he refuses to break character assaulting and later being assaulted angry guests.

Östlund makes each museum exhibit to parody post-modern art.

Östlund also stages scenes of incredible awkwardness. He places his characters in seemingly minor situations that become pits of inescapable embarrassment. After Anne and Christian have a one-night stand, their intimate moment makes a shift into escalating mistrust and Moss gives her character the slight edge needed to turn things uncomfortable, yet funny. Her exaggerated expressions hint at insanity lurking underneath her professional appearance. Another scene features a small child somehow intimidating Christian after feeling that he has been wronged. Without any sort of leverage, he still manages to become a major pain. The scenarios onscreen would be ridiculous when read on paper or explained to anyone and it’s the preposterousness of each dispute that makes the scenes as hilarious as they are awkward.

The central conflict is Christian being yanked out of his haute lifestyle. As a “semi-public figure” of high society, he carries an air of refinement. His sharp suits and styled hair are characteristic of his upper-class milieu, but, despite his position, his life unravels because of minor events. Östlund makes a point to emphasize numerous beggars that Christian walks by every day. With each new plot beat, the director brings Christian closer and closer to those beggars. His desires and his comic, but stupid actions are as “low class” as anyone else’s. It never overwhelms the comedy, but encasing the story in a backdrop of class differences gives the film an unexpected edge. The combination of hilariously cringe-worthy encounters, high art mockery, and a hint of social commentary make The Square an odd mix, but nevertheless a deftly executed satire.

4/5 stars.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017): Threats, Mistakes, and Inexplicable Illness

Yorgos Lanthimos is not a normal person. His debut film, Dogtooth, centered on a family whose children were brainwashed into believing cats were vicious predators and that the outside world was uninhabitable. His most recent movie, The Lobster, was about a man sent to a facility where he had to find a partner or else he would be turned into an animal. As strange as they may sound, each of his films is centered on a high concept. His first was about societal norms, The Lobster was about the overlooked ridiculousness of courtship, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about trust during a family crisis. Steven (Colin Firth; The Lobster) is a heart surgeon who spends time with Martin (Barry Keoghan; Dunkirk), the 16-year old son of a man that died during an operation. After Martin meets Steven’s family, he decides Steven must pay for the death of his father. He claims a series of illnesses will strike Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman; Lion) and their son and daughter unless Steven makes an impossible choice.

Lanthimos continues the style seen in The Lobster but with a thriller twist. Characters still speak in the same monotone with a deliberately anti-naturalist cadence. This can still lead to laughter at the sheer morbidity flowing from each deadpan delivery. Martin’s threats are spoken like a reading from a number from a phonebook, slow, clear, and punctuated. He becomes a dangerous presence despite his size. He makes no physical aggressions and maintains a withdrawn posture. He seems resigned to the fate of Stevens family, not excited by it, and is completely stoic, often trying to present logical reasoning for why they must suffer. Keoghan, an Irish actor, maintains complete control of his body language and takes Martin from a potential red flag to an enigma of potentially sadistic capability.

The camera’s distance emphasizes the insignificance of the characters.

The film’s world feels sterile and foreboding. Lanthimos tracks his characters like Kubrick in the famous tricycle scene from The Shining but places his camera at a curiously elevated height with wide angle lenses. The camera, perched near the ceiling, looms over its subjects, making them tiny figures in a pristine, but cold and empty world. The hallways of Steven’s hospital are cavernous with rooms that dwarf the staff and patients. Lanthimos adds to this atmosphere with his use of music. The soundtrack uses heavy groans from a piano and violin screeches. Everything in the production hints at the ominous nature of the events to come.

The genre of the film is as inexplicable as its narrative. It features laugh out loud moments as characters bluntly and dryly describe their situation, flashes of body horror, but, more than anything, a creeping paranoia. Like with the family from last year’s The Witch, when the kids suddenly fall ill, distrust begins to grow. What is happening and how? What are they willing to do to stop it? Farrell and Kidman’s relationship goes from loving, or at least whatever loving means in a Lanthimos film, to jagged and explosive. There are no clear answers about on what is going on and what should happen next. Instead, their suspicion breeds desperation as we witness how quickly – and violently – a family unit can be upended by an outside force.

4/5 stars.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017): A Delightfully Grisly Trip to Prison

This a brutal movie and not for the easily offended. Coming off a similarly violent debut, director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) has made his genre preferences clear. He’s interested in the plain viciousness of violence and his newest film gives him ample situations to execute his vision. Vince Vaughn (The Internship) plays Bradley, a former boxer and reformed drug runner forced back into the trade to support his family after losing his job. When a drug deal with a foreign syndicate goes wrong, Bradley finds himself facing years in prison, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Once inside, he is forced into a serious of deadly confrontations on the prison ground.

Vaughn proves himself to be a capable lead in the difficult role. It’s one thing to play a criminal, but it’s another to be a genuinely sympathetic one. Plenty of gangster films do this by idolizing the lead’s actions and basking in their success and its copious financial rewards, but Zahler isn’t about to glorify criminality. Bradley’s crimes are forced by necessity, not desire. He returns to running drugs only after losing his job in a poor economy and the violence he begets in prison is a result of an unfortunate situation. Vaughn plays the character with a quick-thinking practicality. When placed in difficult position, he determines what action is needed, then immediately takes it. The complete lack of emotion or pleasure he gets from fighting others combined with his precarious circumstances, allow him to be likable despite his aggressive behavior.

Bradley’s pragmatic demeanor separates him from other movie criminals.

Zahler is a director that never turns his camera away from the action. Most films would cut on the impact of a punch or away from the results of a violent beatdown, but not here. Zahler takes great pride in offering close ups of the carnage others would avoid. The audience will flinch, but he doesn’t. The hits here hurt. This isn’t PG-13 combat and limbs are broken, shattered, and snapped in the wrong direction, revealing the bones underneath. Faces get even worse treatment. They are beaten, bloodied, and, in many cases, smashed, with the aftermath put on display throughout. As a director of fight scenes, Zahler does an admirable job. He favors wide, unbroken shots with tight choreography that feels grounded and efficient.

The violence can sometimes cross over into slight comedy as it escalates, but it doesn’t detract from the film. It’s a real joy to watch, wince, and, occasionally, clap at the brutality onscreen. The level of savagery almost pushes the movie into the grindhouse category, but Zahler isn’t interested in campy thrills. His appreciation for bloodshed rests atop a solid narrative foundation. This puts him in a group of new filmmakers (like Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier) that bring A-level talent to what could be B-grade genre films. His ability to balance character with action makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 a treat for both thriller and genre fans. The violent assaults and sympathetic lead create an enticing and delightfully grisly trip to prison.

4/5 stars.

Our Souls at Night (2017): A Disappointing Waste of Talent

Netflix’s newest film continues their shaky track record when it comes to features. Based on the novel by Kent Haruf and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), the film centers on two elderly people in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Louis (Robert Redford; The Sting) and Addie (Jane Fonda; 9 to 5) have both lost their spouses years earlier and live alone. One afternoon, Addie visits Louis and makes a strange proposal. She wants him to sleep with her. Not anything more than that, just sleep. She is tired of being alone and wants someone to lay next to at night. What follows is their growing relationship and the effect it has on their humble lives.

It’s rare to see a cast this talented fall so flat. Seasoned and celebrated actors like Fonda and Redford, who have worked together onscreen before, completely lack the naturalism required. The soft-spoken, but straightforward dialogue of the book is mostly retained in the script, but is ruined by the delivery. If this was their feature debut, Fonda and Redford would not be getting calls from casting agents anytime soon. Their attempts at laconic delivery come off as awkward and surprised. They read their lines as if each statement is really a question and it kills any hope of establishing the mood required. The performances are so disconnected that if one actor had recorded their parts on a green screen and was later composited into the footage, I’d believe it. There are a few brief glimpses of the chemistry that could and should have existed, but the majority of the film is missing this vital ingredient.

The unfortunate lack of chemistry kills the movie’s emotional center.

Haruf’s novel was not the most obvious choice to adapt. At its core, it is a simple story without any of the trappings of typical movie. There are no villains, no major conflict, and no real stakes to speak of. The novel was a story of two lonely people near the end of their lives finding solace through companionship. What separated it from other books was its attention to detail. Haruf was able to capture the longing Louis and Addie had and the emptiness they felt without someone else in their lives. He knew the profound impact that a true emotional connection can have on a life and expressed it amidst the most modest of settings, but his work has been diluted in the film adaptation to the point of blandness.

None of Batra’s personal style is present here. His first two films took a gentle, compassionate approach to his characters and world which made him a perfect fit for this material, yet that approach is absent. The film is completely forgettable and misses the nuances of Louis and Addie’s relationship. The soft focus and earnest, but hushed speaking of his previous works are replaced by a flat production. Batra has put forth a workmanlike effort on what could have been his breakout feature. The obvious lack of interest behind the camera is a continual letdown as the movie settles for mediocrity. It may not be one of the worst films of the year, but it is certainly one of the most disappointing.

2/5 stars.

Brad’s Status (2017): A Self-centered Midlife Crisis

At some point in life, we look at what we have and wonder, “What else could I be?” It’s natural to compare ourselves to others and think about the alternate lives we could have led. Written and directed by Mike White (Year of the Dog), Brad’s Status is about a middle-aged man doing just that. When Brad (Ben Stiller; Zoolander) takes his son Troy (Austin Abrams; Paper Towns) to visit colleges, he starts to think back to his own college days and where his close group of friends ended up. One is a political commentator and author of several best-selling books, another owns his own hedge fund, and the last sold his tech company and retired to Hawaii at the age of 40. Brad, on the other hand, started a small non-profit and lives a normal life in Sacramento with wife and son.

Brad’s Status is the quintessential midlife crisis film. Brad feels like he missed his potential and his comparisons to the illustrious lives of his college friends are relatable because of his chosen profession. While others chose the money and power of politics, finance, or tech, he chose service to others and is now living through the consequences of that decision. The central question is not only what could he have done to become successful, but rather how could he have done the most good. Does his non-profit, scraping together financing from reluctant donors, make a difference? Brad’s only employee turns in his two-week notice and remarks “I’d rather make a lot of money and donate it than beg people for their money.” The realities created from a life of service versus self-interest and how decisions made for altruistic reasons can lead to middling personal outcomes is the film’s most sympathetic angle.

Stiller and Abrams have natural chemistry as father and son.

To a certain extent, Brad’s struggle is an exercise in solipsism. He only views the world in terms of how it affects him, sometimes even forgetting about his loved ones. This disregard can become callous when he looks at the effect of his relationship with his wife. One of his friends had a career-focused, ambitious spouse that, in Brad’s mind, forced his friend to push himself further in comparison. Brad’s wife is a loving, supportive partner but he wonders if her contentedness with their middle-class life held him back. This is the kind of reasoning that can often make Brad an unlikable character. He can resort to blaming others for his own failings. When issues with his personal success turn outward, it makes him seem less like tragic figure suffering for a noble cause and, especially when he is ungrateful towards his caring wife, more like a self-centered asshole.

Thankfully, the supporting cast eventually calls Brad on his bullshit. It’s a relief when even the college aged characters burst his bubble of self-absorption and point out his narrowmindedness, but his son is the main catalyst for change. Despite his age, Troy is a calm, self-assured individual and without his father’s crippling self-doubt. The realistic interplay between father and son is heartwarming as Troy’s confidence gives his dad hope and purpose. Regardless of his current position in life, Brad still made an impact on the world through raising his son. Some of the conclusions White comes to may be cliché, but his belief in the value of family and parenthood over material wealth still holds weight. It may not overcome a degree of navel-gazing, but, in an age of increasingly exhibitionist behavior, Brad’s Status is a worthwhile reminder of what defines true success.

3/5 stars.