Film Brief: American Animals

American Animals mixes actors and the real-life characters they portray in a sometimes very effective and other times distracting suboptimal way.  On top of that, the movie dragged out too much.  There’s no reason for it not to have been 30 minutes more compact.  But the performances were good and compelling, and the movie redeemed itself at the end.  The climax and immediate aftermath swung American Animals back into positive territory.  6/10

Comparison Notes: every heist film ever, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Bernie, Donnie Darko

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Film Brief: First Reformed

First Reformed has been compared to Taxi Driver; I think Big Night is a much better way of thinking of it.  A non-humorous, dark version of Big Night with no cooking, just a lot of drinking.

I’m on the fence a little with this one.  The story was overly simple, and lacked the profound heft that I think was being attempted.  No argument that it was compelling — not boring for a minute — and that the performances were good.  The main problem with First Reformed was that it was too easy to see where the story was heading.  Nonetheless, this is the second-best picture of the year so far, on the high end of 7/10.

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Note: First Reformed features a square frame, which I normally find a unnecessary distraction.  I think A24 has got some vested interest in the square frame — something other studios just don’t use and for good reason.  I must concede that it worked well with this movie.  The only distraction on this one was Landmark’s super-bright EXIT sign right next to the screen.

Comparison Notes (all recommended): the aforementioned Big Night, Inglourious Basterds, Breaking the Waves, The East, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Wrestler, The Machinist, Apocalypse Now

Who’s the Beast

Beast had me well intrigued for most of the going, but the final third was a muddling disappointment.  Or put another way, I liked this movie until I didn’t.  The concluding scenes are not so clever or original as I think the filmmakers, and most critics, believed them to be.  I will grant that the romance at the center is compelling.  A marginal thumbs-down; 5/10

Comparison Notes: the much to infinitely better: Lady Macbeth, Side Effects, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, Thelma, The Box

Film Brief: Disobedience

Disobedience is an unpleasant film, and not the good kind of unpleasant.  Strong performances flesh out the world of orthodox Jewish life in modern London, but there is not nearly enough here story-wise.  Nearly a non-movie.  4/10

Comparison Notes: recommended: Carol, Crazy/Beautiful, House of Sand and Fog; not recommended: the Iranian films The Salesman and About Elly bear a number of similarities

Twin Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Part I: The Rider

A couple critics on the RT circuit hailed the “poetry” of The Rider.  I’m not sure how poetic it is.  But it’s good.  The plot development is lacking, but the film’s strength lies in its characters.  The performances, and then the movie as a whole, is as realistic as you will ever see in a non-documentary film.  There is a poetry in that, of a sort — but I don’t think that’s what the critics are talking about.  With characters this engaging, the characters ARE the story.  But still, I need more cowbell.  Or more story.  One of those two.

The scenes of horse training are engaging, even fascinating.  OK, maybe even poetic.

I recommend The Rider, but with all the caveats as if it were a 6.  Watch the trailer, then understand this is not a rosy picture.  If you still think you’d like it, go for it and you shouldn’t be disappointed.

7/10

Note: Part II will be Lean on Pete, if I can get a decent showtime, which looks highly unlikely.

Claim You Were Never Really Here. I wish I could.

You Were Never Really Here reminds me of Good Time from last year: a little indie that, with the first scenes and through the intro title, I thought: YES!  This is GOOD… often you know immediately when a movie is going to be good.   But with one punch then another and another, a left hook and a right jab, you realize how bad it’s going to be.

Not showing every last detail and letting the imagination fill in the gaps can be a very effective means of storytelling.  The best examples are Fargo and American Psycho.  But when that’s the whole film — random dead people left and right, real and imagined, it just goes to show how little an idea the filmmaker has.  Of how little a story there is.  Of trying to substitute style for substance.

It all goes back to a theme I keep pounding away at: the power of linear storytelling.  More often than not, when a filmmaker goes highly non-linear, they are compensating for the lack of a good story.   Not that You Were… is all that nonlinear.  It’s just bad.  I blame it on Amazon.  3/10

Comparison Notes: The infinitely better Thelma comes to mind.  When the movie resorts to bodies floating in water for no good reason whatsoever, you realize you’ve hit bottom.