“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved, and capable of loving.” It’s statements like these – sweeping, painfully earnest, and deeply resonant – that characterize Morgan Neville’s latest documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film follows the life of the late Fred Rogers, host and showrunner of the influential children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet it’s not so much about Fred Rogers the man as it is about the philosophy he birthed and tried his hardest to live by through his work. Neville knows, as all documentarians should, that the best way into a person’s life is through the world they build for others. By taking this approach, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? evades all the myth-making and sentimentality that once seemed inevitable in reflecting on the life of someone as venerated and impossibly good as Rogers, resulting instead in a film overflowing with true emotion and poignant, necessary lessons for the American future.
As a recent college graduate in a serious monogamous relationship, I was incredibly wary of On Chesil Beach before stepping foot in the theater. Would the story of young love turned sour be too affecting, too real? Could I sleep that night? Saoirse read me like an open book in Lady Bird, a favorite that recently made me weep (once more) on a commercial airline, and I wasn’t sure if I was prepared for that kind of emotional beating again just a week later. Luckily for me, On Chesil Beach can’t hold a flickering candle to the emotional realities of Lady Bird or Atonement, a much more successful adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel. Stilted, flat and infuriatingly narrow-minded, On Chesil Beach takes its supposedly heartbreaking, interior-focused source material and runs with it in the opposite direction, resulting in a film that’s as unsatisfying as its subjects’ sex life. Although Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give everything they’ve got, wigs and all, to Dominic Cooke’s directorial debut, their performances aren’t enough to save this wilting period piece from itself.
After an eight-year hiatus from directing, Lee Chang-dong has returned with Burning, a simmering mystery and social commentary on the growing income inequality in South Korea—among other, bigger problems. The film loosely borrows from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” but its richly literate script is like a book all its own, bouncing from soliloquies on mortality and dissatisfaction, to scenes of tribal dancing, emotional sex, intense violence and silent contemplation. While the film occasionally stretches to connect these disparate elements—and struggles to keep the characters’ dense musings from sounding like words on a page— Burning is ultimately much greater than the sum of its parts, and all tedium is forgotten by its haunting conclusion.
After the dark and dismal days of ‘The Canyons’ and ‘The Dying of the Light,’ writer-director Paul Schrader is back in a big way. “Return to form” may be the biggest cliché in film criticism, but I’m hard pressed to find a more apt description for ‘First Reformed’. The religious drama, starring a superb Ethan Hawke as a small town chaplain living a solitary life following the death of his son, takes everything that makes ‘Taxi Driver’ and Schrader’s other work so fantastic—the psychological complexity, calculated risk-taking, and darkly humorous tension—and catapults into a 21st century narrative with immediate, real-world consequence.
High school summer breaks are a lot like Lana del Rey albums: romantic and bittersweet when you wistfully look back on them, but tedious when you’re in the middle of one.
With a title that recalls lyrics from del Rey’s Great Gatsby ballad “Young and Beautiful,” Hot Summer Nights is interested in the former interpretation, offering a rearview mirror perspective on a life-changing summer of 1991 full of sex, drugs, crime and betrayal. Although its an undeniably bold and stylish debut from writer-director Elijah Bynum, Hot Summer Nights, like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and everything Lana del Rey has ever written, struggles to break through the confusion of its own excess. It’s a fun vehicle for strong performances by Timothée Chalamet and Maika Monroe, but what, exactly, is it trying to say?
Midway through Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, our 13-year-old heroine Kayla (Elsie Fischer) is invited to a birthday pool party by the mother of classmate Kennedy, despite the too-cool girl’s protestations. Of all the stress-inducing phrases in the English language, “pool party” may be the most casually cruel. Kayla, kind and bright but self-conscious and friendless, is visibly terrified by the idea of having to don a swimsuit and play games with people who don’t even register that she exists. On the day of the party, Kayla paces around Kennedy’s bathroom, breathing heavily and barely suppressing a panic attack.
Jennifer Lawrence, the Hollywood sweetheart of this decade, is stumbling. Not in her performances, let’s be clear—Ms. Jennifer has proven herself time and time again to be a formidable actress—yet her choice in movies has led her down a path of box office disappointments and critical flops. To put the star’s recent struggles in perspective, let’s consider one of her films that’s so bad, and was so quickly buried, barely anyone has seen it. Before there was Red Sparrow, mother! and Passengers, there was Serena.
The little-known 2014 film—which stars Lawrence alongside permanent love interest Bradley Cooper—barely made it to distribution, pulling box office earnings of under half a million dollars worldwide. How could a movie starring two A-listers, one at the peak of their it-girl moment, go so wrong?
In all fairness, Serena starts off just fine. As one might expect of a Depression-era period piece about the North Carolina timber industry—if ever there were such a genre—the film begins with the camera lovingly gliding over wooded, misty mountains. The landscape is beautiful, even breathtakingly so, and has an eeriness and personality to it that gestures towards drama to come. How exciting! Perhaps the opening credits seem like could have been produced on iMovie, but that’s part of the charm, right?