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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Damsel

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Damsel

There is a brilliant premise at the heart of the new indie western Damsel. It’s too bad the rest of the movie never quite lives up to the promise of its central idea. Filmmaking team David and Nathan Zellner have made a deconstructionist western in which the damsel of the title, Penelope, is in anything but distress. At least, she wouldn’t be if it weren’t for all the men in her life who are trying to save her. She doesn’t need or want to be saved from anything, but every man she comes across tries to force it upon her, to her endless frustration.

That sly twist on a familiar trope is how the Zellner brothers upend the thematic myth of the western genre that insists women on the frontier needed men to protect and rescue them. That myth is alive and well in other forms of entertainment, and it has a pernicious hold on every part of our culture. That’s why it’s so refreshing that the Zellner brothers are skewering it in Damsel.

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First Reformed

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First Reformed

First Reformed might as well have been titled Can God Forgive Us? The question is asked by many people and in many ways throughout the film. Ethan Hawke’s character, Reverend Ernst Toller, literally spells out the question on the welcome sign in front of his church as his descent into doubt and madness nears its lowest point. You might think those of us who don’t believe in the existence of any gods, Christian or otherwise, would consider it a pointless question and regard First Reformed as a fruitless filmmaking exercise. While the question might be futile, since there is no verifiable evidence for the existence of a god, First Reformed is a compelling, vital, and spellbinding work of art.

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Ocean's 8

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Ocean's 8

The strangest thing about watching Ocean’s 8 is that I could never quite figure out what it was supposed to be. Maybe that’s because the movie never quite figured that out, either. Like 2016’s gender-swapping Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8 sort of works like a reboot of the Ocean’s franchise, with an all-female cast in place of the men from Steven Soderbergh’s testosterone drenched series of heist movies. Soderbergh is credited as a producer on this film, by the way.

It’s a reboot in that it trades on the Ocean’s brand, but features all new characters pulling off a new caper. At the same time, certain elements work as a straight remake of the first film. The beginning of the picture opens in the exact same way as Ocean’s Eleven. Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean is seated in front of a never-seen parole board, who are trying to determine if her time in prison has rehabilitated her wayward con artist habits. Like Ocean’s Eleven, 8 consists of the main character building her team and putting her plan into action.

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Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired for 30 years on PBS. Because of this extraordinary long run, we see many different versions of the show in the new documentary examining the life of its creator and star, Fred Rogers. The sets change, the video quality changes, we see versions in both color and black and white. Mr. Rogers also changes. We see him as a young man, an old man, and somewhere in between.

While watching the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I had an exuberant emotional response when I saw my version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood appear on the screen for the first time. I’m guessing most other audience members will have the same response, but at a different point in the show’s evolution, depending on when you watched it. For me, it was the early to mid-1980s. Mr. Rogers had a healthy dose of gray mixed with his dark hair; he was middle-aged on the cusp of becoming an old man. The quality of the show was the soft, warm analog fuzziness that comes with shooting things on video tape instead of film.

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Hereditary

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Hereditary

In his first feature film, Hereditary, director Ari Aster sets the disorienting tone of the entire movie in the very first shot. It’s a glacial pan around a room full of what appear to be dollhouses. We soon find out the protagonist, Annie Graham, is a miniaturist artist, and these tiny re-creations are her work. As Aster’s camera performs a delicate dolly, getting ever closer to one of the miniatures, we see sudden motion. A man walks through a dollhouse door. This space – at first a dollhouse representation of a bedroom – now fills the frame, and it inexplicably transforms into a new, full-sized setting. The man who walks through the door is Steve, Annie’s husband, and he’s waking their son, Peter, so that the family won’t be late for a funeral. Annie’s mother, Ellen, has died after suffering from a long period of dementia.

Aster’s perplexing and clever visual introduction tries to prepare us for the story that is about to unfold. Nothing in Hereditary is what it seems. One of the most exciting things about the movie is how many surprises it contains. Every time I thought I had a handle on where it was going, Aster peels back another layer. He keeps the unexpected revelations coming at a feverish pace right up until the final, terrifying last scene. What at the beginning promises to be a film about loss, grief, and family dysfunction – although Hereditary is about all that, too – by the last act becomes a fever dream of a horror film, and easily the scariest movie of the year.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

When I wrote about Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, one of my main takeaways about the picture was how much it broke from the previous movies in the Star Wars universe. It was thematically dense in a way we had never seen in a Star Wars movie, and it only tangentially relied on callbacks to the earlier films to connect us to the series. Much of the credit for that innovative feel was probably due to The Walt Disney Company (which now owns and produces all things Star Wars) introducing fresh blood into the franchise. Neither director Gareth Edwards nor writers Chris Weitz or Tony Gilroy had ever been involved with any Star Wars project prior to Rogue One. The new anthology entry, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is like the anti-Rogue One, but I don’t mean that in the strictly pejorative sense that you’re probably expecting.

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