I'm back with five more movies I've seen in the last month. Trying to cram 'em all in here before the fall movie season kicks off and I fall too far behind. Enjoy!
RBG * * * (Dir. Betsy West and Julie Cohen)
The great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was already a liberal and feminist icon, but she’s become even more so in recent years, as the Supreme Court has moved further and further right, and her righteous dissents have taken their place in the pantheon of this dark era in American history. On top of which are the fervent prayers of a terrified nation that the 85-year-old cancer survivor still has a long way to go on the highest bench in the land, or all’s lost (NOT hyperbole). This valentine to the pioneering champion of women’s rights is a slight, but lovely introduction to Ginsburg’s life, recapping her early years at Cornell and as a lawyer arguing sex discrimination cases in the 1970’s, her 54 year marriage to fellow lawyer Marty Ginsburg, who championed her career as much or even more so than she did, her appointment to the appellate and later Supreme Court by presidents Carter and Clinton, and her rise as the fiery advocate for protecting the civil rights of minorities and women in an age when so many long ago, hard won battles seem in danger of being lost all over again. There’s not much in terms of innovation as a documentary, but the inspirational life of Ginsburg, who’s overcome two bouts with cancer and is as great a survivor and a fighter as any American citizen you could name, is a life worth celebrating in all its glory, and it better have a whole other act still to come.
DEADPOOL 2 * * (Dir. David Leitch)
I enjoyed the first Deadpool, but the sequel essentially cuts out everything that gave the original movie something of a core inside the layers of jokes and meta references. Ryan Reynolds returns as the snappy superhero who knows he’s in a superhero movie, but this time it’s all pretty much surface level stuff wrapped around a senseless plot that pretends to hold some depth that it really doesn’t have. Going to have to go into spoiler territory here to really explain what bothered me about this movie, so read no further if you don’t want to know. Deadpool’s girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is rather shamelessly fridged in the first five minutes, removing the one element of heart underlining the entirety of the first film, so that Deadpool can go off and have manly adventures by himself without the burden of figuring out something to do for the female character that the screenwriters (including Reynolds this time, by the way) clearly had no use for after the last film ended. Another shameless move is the Terminator ripoff plot (knowing and commenting on its derivative nature makes it no less so), toss in a horribly annoying and unlikable child that Deadpool has to save, and finally, supplement the loss of director Tim Miller with the far more generic stylings of David Leitch, and what we’ve got is a movie that rests solely the on the sarcastic remarks of Reynolds himself, who clearly believed that he was ONLY factor that led the success of the original film. Let this be a lesson to the guys out there- it’s not just all about you, even when you’re the star, okay? Get over yourselves.
FIRST REFORMED * * * 1/2 (Dir. Paul Schrader)
Ever since writing Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver over 50 years ago, director Paul Schrader has been dealing with existential questions about life and grappling with nihilistic points of view in one way or another. And today the doubts are as strong as ever, this time explored in the story of a reverend (Ethan Hawke), who’s possibly terminally ill and faced with the severe personal issues of one very troubled parishioner. We live in a time where things seem grim every day, a myriad of problems facing us that all look bleak and are mostly caused by our own self-destruction, perhaps none more so than climate change and the refusal to accept or act on it. Reverend Ernst Toller struggles with inevitable feelings of doom in what he feels is an increasingly pessimistic world where humanity may not be worth saving, despite his Christian theology. The debate stirred up in this film is intelligent and thought-provoking, causing you to question your own beliefs and worth to the world, as Toller simultaneously forms a moving connection with his young parishioner’s wife (Amanda Seyfried), while his own faith seems to be slipping away. Hawke is surprisingly superb in this movie, revealing a depth of performance previously unseen in his career, while the impact of the emotional and surreal final moments leave you shattered.
HEREDITARY * * 1/2 (Dir. Ari Aster)
A recent wave of original horror films from various independent studios has left a string of worthy additions to the canon in the eyes of genre enthusiasts, with particular favorites being The Witch, It Follows and The Babadook. Hereditary is undoubtedly another fine example of this successful streak, but it left me feeling more uncomfortable than thrilled by the experience, especially as the final moments reveal a much more conventional plot than was promised by the bewildering air of mystery surrounding the majority of the film. Not that there aren’t many good things to recommend here- Toni Collette being the biggest. Collette is astonishing actually, as a woman grieving the death of her mother, whose disturbing family history of psychosis is laid out early enough to make you question the reality of what you’re seeing onscreen, especially as the plot veers off in rather shocking directions. It’s difficult to talk about this movie without getting deep into spoiler territory, so suffice it too say that a particularly devastating plot development sends the movie in one direction, then jerks it towards another before barreling back on itself, never once allowing the audience a chance to figure out the truth of what may or may not be happening in this story. Some may find that unpredictability itself a thrill, and the discomfort and scares aroused in the audience are genuine and earned, through the uncertainty and the psychological torture being unloaded on this family. But the ultimate reveal is less creative than you might have seen coming and something of a disappointment, while the feeling of being jerked around through the plot is rather unpleasant, given the extremely gruesome setup. Still, writer-director Ari Aster shows real skill in his feature debut, and gets a remarkable performance out of Toni Collette, who may be the best reason to see the film.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? * * * (Dir. Morgan Neville)
Filmmaker Morgan Neville (director of the Oscar winning 20 Feet From Stardom) has tackled the singular life of Fred Rogers in his tribute to the American icon who dedicated his life to public television and educational programming for children with his Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran for over four decades. This documentary runs through the history of the landmark series and Rogers’ full blown commitment to it for the sake of the moral and intellectual development of American children, the primary cause of the Presbyterian minister’s life. Interviews with family members, co-workers and employees showcase the unique nature of a man like Rogers, who really did stand out as a public figure for his truly singular personality and somewhat mysterious (perhaps because it was so singular) aura that was somewhat inimitable in the pantheon of American celebrities. This is a glowing love letter to Rogers’ goodness and spiritual devotion to the spread of love as the only philosophy worth living by- nearly Jesus-like in its positive messaging. However, the narrower focus on the show itself leaves out the larger life of the man and tends to leave one with more questions about who he was and how exactly he came to be this messenger, especially as you get occasional insights into the fragility of his various alter egos within the characters that populated the long-running program. The contrast between Rogers’ message and what we are experiencing in the country today however, is pointed and necessary, a stark reminder of the power of both goodness and the existence of genuinely good people, who practiced what they preached and only wanted to make this world better. They do exist and they are out there- losing hope and giving in cannot be an option.