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.

* * *

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

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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.

Film Brief: Thoroughbreds

Going into Thoroughbreds, I thought it would be little more than an update on Heathers, styled to the tastes of contemporary youth, and set with a bevy of up-and-coming starlets to match.  Luckily, there’s a little more to it than that.  Whenever you have good strong characters, or at least characters with attitude portrayed well, half the work is done.  Characters make up for a lot, in this case a story that is hardly original.

In other words,  Thoroughbreds is entertaining but less than great.  7/10

Comparison Notes (all recommended, and better): The Housemaid, La Cérémonie, Heathers, Fletch

Film Brief: Double Lover

At first, I loved Double Lover.  In the early going especially, the storytelling was strong, driven by the leads’ performances.  But the story was uneven, eventually falling into a derivative doppelgänger tale crossed with silly, even absurd, David Cronenberg-esque elements.  David Lynch has proven to be the master of the doppelgänger / film as soufflé .  A key to his success is that he doesn’t belabor the point.  The doppelgänger isn’t the story itself, as it was with Double Lover.  For Lynch, it’s almost incidental to the larger story at hand.

As the doppelgänger elements were mishandled here, a better tack would have been more the approach displayed in Thelma.  That is, the approach of a better movie.  5/10

Comparison Notes: Vertigo, Cronenberg films, Mulholland Drive + other Lynch projects.