Widows

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Widows

It’s probably ridiculous for me to describe the Chicago-set crime thriller Widows as authentic. That’s not due to any fault with the movie. In fact, it’s nothing to do with the movie at all. It’s because I’ve lived almost 90% of my life in Texas. While I’ve done my fair share of traveling, I have not so much as set foot in the state of Illinois, let alone Chicago (a situation I’m anxious to rectify). Widows is as much about that city as it is anything else. It’s an incredibly authentic rendering of the Chicago of my imagination, which I’ve conjured through pop culture representations, journalism and non-fiction works, and basic cultural osmosis.

The movie weaves together fundamental Chicago touchstones into a dense and layered story: corrupt machine politics, a deadly criminal underworld, uneasy racial tensions. Meanwhile, the heist at the center of the movie is as taught and suspenseful as anything you’ll see on the screen this year.

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The Favourite

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The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.

While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.

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Beautiful Boy

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Beautiful Boy

It appears that the opioid crisis has finally reached far enough beyond fly-over country for Hollywood to notice it and feature it as the social problem of the moment. Two awards season hopefuls showcase not just drug addiction, but the kind of drug addiction that has been making headlines for almost a decade now. Both Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back focus on men in their early 20s who are opioid addicts and how their parents struggle to help them break free of the addiction.

I have no opinion yet on Ben is Back, because I haven’t seen it as of this writing (although the screener is sitting on my desk in the “to watch” pile) but looking at the cast and a brief plot synopsis, I’m willing to venture a guess that it shares the same problem Beautiful Boy has. While the picture achieves what it sets out to do, Beautiful Boy is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the easy way of exploring the devastating opioid epidemic.

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Roma

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Roma

Director Alfonso Cuarón has synthesized the best elements of his career to date for his latest film Roma, a touching, ethereal masterpiece. The subject matter is semi-autobiographical, like elements from his breakout hit Y Tu Mamá También. Just like his visually stunning work in Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón’s absolute mastery of the cinematic techniques of camera movement and framing are also on display in this film. What sets Roma apart, though, is its lyrical, contemplative mode of storytelling. Those elements are present even in Cuarón’s most anxiety-inducing picture, Gravity, but the director is exploring them more fully here. Roma is emotionally complex and mature; it’s a beautiful film, both visually and thematically.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody

A crucial part to the formula of a biopic about a popular entertainer is giving the audience plenty of moments of foreshadowing in which they can knowingly smile and nod their head to what’s coming. Freddie playing the first ten notes of Bohemian Rhapsody on a piano for his girlfriend early in the movie is a prime example of this. The girlfriend, Mary, tells Freddie she likes the music, and he responds, “I think it has potential.” Yes, Freddie, yes it does have potential, we are meant to think as we share a collective hushed chuckle. The picture is full to bursting with moments like this.

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Bad Times at the El Royale

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Bad Times at the El Royale

Writer and director Drew Goddard’s latest picture, the pulpy, ultraviolent Bad Times at the El Royale, entertains even as it loses its way with countless subplots and narrative red herrings. The movie’s flabby runtime of two hours and twenty-one minutes engenders a sense of interminability rather than rapturous suspense, the latter undoubtedly being Goddard’s goal. Royale’s bleak worldview – the movie’s happy ending feels like it’s going through the motions and rings a little hollow considering the nihilistic killing and suffering in its climax – makes me hesitate to call it fun. But in more than a few ways, it’s just that. Royale’s phenomenal production value, stellar cast, and creation of a heroic rooting interest (once it finally comes) make it more enjoyable than it otherwise would be.

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Free Solo

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Free Solo

I’m not a big fan of poker (and as a rule, I dislike gambling in general), but every once in a while, I’ll play penny ante games with friends. The very few occasions when I’ve been involved in impromptu games “just for fun,” because none of us happened to have the cash on hand to give real value to the chips we were using, I lost interest almost immediately. Without the consequences of winning or losing real money, it’s not any fun. You’re just throwing around chips without any thought behind it.

Alex Honnold, arguably the greatest rock climber of all time, seems to hold the same view about his vocation and obsession, but the stakes in this game are his life. Honnold is most famous for his free-solo climbs. These are climbs made with no safety equipment. No ropes. No harness. There are only two possible outcomes to each of Honnold’s stunning free-solo ascents: perfection or death.

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First Man

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First Man

Director Damien Chazelle is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. The protagonists of his films make great sacrifices to achieve their goals. In Whiplash, Andrew Neiman will forsake friends and family, spending his every free moment to become a better jazz drummer. In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia are willing to let their relationship crumble while they chase their respective dreams of becoming a successful musician and actor.  In First Man, Chazelle turns his perfection obsessed gaze to a real-life figure. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and the rest of the people involved in the Apollo space program had one goal: to set foot on the moon. Several people gave their lives in the effort to achieve this goal.

Screenwriter Josh Singer is also no stranger to projects featuring characters who are intensely focused on their work. Singer co-wrote both Spotlight and The Post, and he served several years as a writer on the television series The West Wing. Singer’s attention to technical detail and Chazelle’s emotionally stirring, at times lyrical, depiction of Armstrong work in tandem to produce a compelling picture. It is one, however, that never quite gives us a satisfying view into Armstrong’s inner turmoil.

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The Hate U Give

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The Hate U Give

Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Tanisha Anderson. These are just a few of the black people whom police officers have killed in the last few years. The list goes on and on. The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Say Their Names campaign has focused attention on myriad issues surrounding state oppression in the black community. One aspect of the black experience in particular received intensive media attention a few years ago: The Talk. That’s the lecture many black parents give their children about what to do during an encounter with the police. Keep your hands visible at all times. No sudden movements. Remain polite and respectful. The goal of strategies like these that black parents impart during The Talk is to make sure their children walk away from interactions with the police alive.

The Hate U Give, a powerful film about race, justice, and so much more, starts with The Talk. It sets a serious and sober tone that director George Tillman, Jr. masterfully sustains as he adds wonderful touches of humor and humanity to a story of righteous anger and, ultimately, hope.

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A Simple Favor

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A Simple Favor

It isn’t easy getting close to Emily. Even her own husband, Sean, sometimes feels like an outsider in his own marriage. The mercurial Emily is a high-powered public relations director for a premier fashion company, and her take-no-bullshit attitude allows her to tell her own boss to get lost on occasion. You have to be willing to treat powerful people like dirt, she says, because sometimes that’s the only way to get through to them. The only thing that can compete with Emily’s job is her devotion to her son, Nicky.

When Emily allows Stephanie – whose son Miles attends the same elementary school as Nicky – into her orbit, Stephanie feels both elated and intimidated. She runs a somewhat successful mommy vlog where she posts about things like making friendship bracelets. Stephanie doesn’t quite know how to handle Emily’s sophistication and no-nonsense demeanor. One day Emily asks Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a few hours while she deals with a minor emergency. Five days later, Emily has vanished. Determined to find her new friend, Stephanie plays detective and uncovers dark secrets from Emily’s past. What she finds will change her life forever.

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The Predator

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The Predator

There’s been a lot of movie geek hype over the fact that cult icon Shane Black is at the helm of the latest Predator reboot, a beloved middle-aged white dude franchise. Black is the writer of late 80s/early 90s action fare like the first two Lethal Weapon pictures, The Last Boy Scout, and Last Action Hero, which, despite its disastrous theatrical run, has turned into a treasured cult artifact.

Black returned with a critical hit in 2005 when he not only wrote but also directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He had a full-on career resurgence in the mid-2010s when he did the same with Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. His brand of gritty action and snappy, foul-mouthed dialog has huge cachet among those middle-aged white dudes I just mentioned – a subgroup that includes your humble reviewer. (Although the OED defines “middle age” as being 45-65. I’m 38, so maybe I’m not quite there yet? Maybe?!? But I digress).

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Blaze

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Blaze

I have to wonder if Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s luminous music biopic about little-known country music singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, would have been as transfixing if Hawke hadn’t focused so much on romanticizing poverty. This is Hawke’s third feature film directorial effort. Telling the Outlaw Country musician’s story became a passion project for the Texas-born actor. Foley’s story is one of crushing deprivation, self-sabotage, and ends in the singer’s tragic death at the young age of 39 (don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler; we learn about Foley’s death in the first ten minutes of the picture).

Our society exalts the idea of the starving/suffering artist, and Hawke taps into that with Blaze. Foley was a man who was seemingly incapable of doing anything but making music, regardless of whether he could make a living at it. He was also good at bestowing back-country philosophy on those around him, earning him the nickname Duct Tape Messiah. I think we all know how little money there is in being contemplative about life and our place in the universe.

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

If there is such a thing as finding the perfect balance between comedy and drama when it comes to portraying as serious a subject as gay reparative therapy, director Desiree Akhavan has done it with The Miseducation of Cameron Post. She and her co-screenwriter, Cecilia Frugiuele, with the help of the cast and crew, have crafted a picture that feels rich and authentic. The film doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of what goes on at “pray away the gay” camps. These controversial (to put it charitably) religious-based “conversion therapy” programs have damaged countless lives. States like California have taken steps in recent months to ban the practice, so far to mixed results.

What Akhavan has done with Cameron Post is to mine the smallest moments of levity from the resilience of the kids whose parents or guardians force them into these camps. The movie is wholly concerned with exploring the complicated inner turmoil that comes with having characteristics that some people in society demonize. On that front, the movie is a resounding success.

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Juliet, Naked

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Juliet, Naked

If you have, or want to have, children, and you think that there is something wrong with any grown person who isn’t interested in doing the same, then Juliet, Naked is the movie for you. Of course, that’s not a ground breaking or particularly challenging stance for a movie to take. There is an overabundance of movies (and books, and magazine articles, etc., etc.) that reinforces the idea that becoming a parent is the pinnacle of maturity.

Movies about the subject – an overwhelming majority of which are romantic comedies – have thoroughly exhausted one particular “becoming a parent” subgenre. It’s what I’ll call “The Man-child Matures” subgenre. Knocked Up, Nine Months, and About a Boy all focus on emotionally stunted men who grow into responsible adults only when they realize that, yes, becoming a parent is what they really wanted all along. Having parenthood thrust upon them makes them finally grow up.

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BlacKkKlansman

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BlacKkKlansman

It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.

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Blindspotting

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Blindspotting

The themes and social commentary of Blindspotting are both timely and important, but the movie’s overall effect is one of slightness. That slightness is mostly a function of the way co-screenwriters and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal chose to mix comedy and drama in their examination of gentrification, race relations, and toxic friendships. The result is uneven and too episodic, with comedic interludes that don’t quite fit alongside harrowing depictions of everything from lethal police misconduct to a young child getting his hands on a loaded gun. These moments, though, and many more like them, are incredibly powerful, and Diggs and Casal’s screenplay handle them with care and a great deal of emotional intelligence.

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Three Identical Strangers

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Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that’s ideas get bigger and bolder with every passing minute. For the most part, it works. By the end, the film is pontificating on the very question of what makes us who we are. What shapes our personality: inherited traits or our surroundings? The “nature vs. nurture” question has been around for centuries. The men at the center of the movie, a set of triplets, offer a tantalizing view into that question. The who and how at the root of their unique situation is also an important, disturbing part of the story. Documentarian Tim Wardle delves into it with a humanistic approach, and what he uncovers is shocking. The questions his film poses about the banality of evil, and the ease with which people use the cover of “scientific discovery” to excuse their actions, is equal parts fascinating and revolting.

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Eighth Grade

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Eighth Grade

The bright, shining star at the center of Eighth Grade is Elsie Fisher as Kayla. She is a revelation. We all wear different masks in our daily lives depending on with whom we’re interacting, and Fisher shows Kayla changing these masks with expert skill. We see confident Kayla, shy Kayla, anxiety-attack Kayla, exuberant Kayla. Fisher is in almost every shot of the picture, and she carries that weight like an acting veteran, not a 15-year-old newcomer.

Eighth Grade is a perfect example of Roger Ebert’s theory of movies as empathy machines. It’s a way to experience the world – even if for just 90 minutes – through someone else’s eyes. Kayla Day encourages us to extend the best parts of our nature to everyone around us. That’s the first step in making the world a better place.

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Sorry to Bother You

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Sorry to Bother You

Hip-hop artist, music producer, teacher, and political activist and agitator Boots Riley has new talents to add to his resume: screenwriter and director. His electric film debut, Sorry to Bother You, announces a fresh and singular new voice in American cinema. The movie uses biting, politically charged satire to comment on a myriad of social justice concerns. Riley skewers issues like race, class, labor rights, toxic capitalism, and selling out with an outlandish and exhilarating premise that gets stranger with every passing minute. I can sum the movie up with one word: bonkers. The last time I used that word to describe a film I wrote about was over three years ago. The inventive science fiction (for lack of a better term) feel and unique sense of humor Riley employs in Sorry to Bother You makes it the first bonkers movie event since Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Sense8: Amor Vincit Omnia

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Sense8: Amor Vincit Omnia

The title says it all. The grand finale for the Netflix original series Sense8 is called Amor Vincit Omnia, the famous Latin phrase that translates to Love Conquers All. If you know anything about the series, you know how well that phrase describes the show as a whole. It’s a fitting title for the last adventure in a series about extraordinary human connection, empathy, and above all, love.

For the purposes of this review, I’m treating Amor Vincit Omnia as a standalone movie, instead of an episode of television, because that’s really what it is. The series, while critically acclaimed, didn’t garner enough viewers for Netflix. The scope of the show required a larger-than-usual budget for the streaming service. The huge costs and small audience caused Netflix to cancel Sense8 after two seasons, consisting of 23 episodes.

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