This Week in Film: April 21-27

I know this is incredibly late (and doesn’t have the customary links on how to watch the films), but that’s what conferences, catching up on work, and preparing for my annual SIFF-vacation gets. Still, it was fun reflecting back on some of the great films I watched at the end of April. Enjoy!

Missing Link
While it may not be my favorite film from the Laika animation team, Missing Link is still a thoroughly enjoyable adventure and is heads and tails above the work being done by most animation studios. The light, breezy tone as well as the broad humor that walks a really fine line (and mostly succeeds) keeps this Laika’s most family-friendly offering, though it does retain the edge of darkness that is so essential to the best stories for children. As always, the stop-motion animation is absolutely gorgeous. I do wish the character arcs had been better developed – it isn’t as emotionally satisfying as some of their masterpieces. Still, it’s an absolute delight from beginning to end, and I appreciate its interrogation of masculine bravado and the colonialism that infects so many of our stories of adventure and discovery. 

First Reformed
On my second viewing of Paul Schraeder’s First Reformed, I found myself engaging even more deeply with this profoundly spiritual film. The film follows Rev. Toller, the pastor of a small congregation whose crisis of faith is laid bare after a troubling encounter with a parishioner. Schraeder uses his deliberate compositions and quiet rhythms to create a contemplative space for this work of anguished prayer. The narrow aspect ratio emphasizes the vertical visual lines, reinforcing Rev. Toller’s crisis of faith and struggles with God – as well as his sense of claustrophobia within a church structure that focuses on platitudes and ignores the scriptural imperative for justice and action. Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career and one of the great performances of modern cinema. As Toller’s despair isolates and causes him to push others away, the film shows the ways in which our connection with the physical can lead us through despair and into the divine. It was the perfect film to watch over Easter weekend, a film that continues to deepen my own faith even as it cries out in rage an despair at the ways in which the American church has abandoned Christ’s call for justice and action in favor of wealth and power.

Drive a Crooked Road
Richard Quine’s Drive a Crooked Road is a fun, pulpy little thriller about a mechanic and race-car driver who is manipulated into driving the getaway car for an ambitious bank heist. The film has some serious issues with pacing – we spend so much time watching the mechanic fall in love with his manipulator that everything from the heist to the fallout and aftermath feels overly rushed. Still, Mickey Rooney is a revelation in the lead role. There’s an ease and naturalism to his performance I didn’t expect, putting the supporting cast to shame and highlighting their histrionic overacting. And the high speed drive down that titular crooked road is a superb and thrilling bit of technical prowess. It’s far from a perfect film, but it’s still a lot of fun.

Human Desire
I wanted to love Fritz Lang’s Human Desire, but compared to some of his other films (and the French film on which it’s based) it’s a much weaker offering. While Lang is an undoubtably brilliant director and a gifted craftsman of cinematic suspense, this just doesn’t come together as strongly as much of his oeuvre. Much of this has to do with the miscasting of Glenn Ford as our working class protagonist who is seduced by his boss’s wife and asked to commit murder. Although it follows a traditional noir story structure, the darkness feels perfunctory, and we never believe that our “good” characters will truly succumb to their darker impulses. It’s a prolonged story of temptation that never goes anywhere and never feels honest. That said, there are a couple of outstanding suspense sequences and Lang’s visuals are masterful, keeping the film interesting even when the narrative falls flat.

Kent Jones’s feature debut, Diane, is a lovely and intimate character study that follows the titular character as she goes about her daily routine caring for ailing friends, attempting to help her addict-son – filling her days taking care of others to keep her from confronting her own loneliness and isolation. It’s a film that easily could have descended into melodrama and sentimentality, but Jones’s long takes and deliberate editing choices keep the film grounded and emotionally honest. Mary Kay Place gives an incredible performance, perfectly capturing this older woman who has so given herself over in service to others that she’s never taken the time to truly know herself. It isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a moving and deeply engaging meditation on mortality that marks the beginning of a really promising career.

There’s a lot of love about Frank Borzge’s anti-noir melodrama Moonrise – the film’s relentlessly hopeful optimism, the endless generosity offered to our nominal protagonist by nearly every supporting character, and an African American character who isn’t a caricature. But all of the film’s optimism relies on a romantic relationship that is begun when our thoroughly unlikable “hero” forces himself on the object of his affection. Rather than interrogating the entitlement and misogyny that leads to such an utter disregard for her feelings, she swoons for him and it’s this “love” that is supposed to buy his redemption in the end. It’s a tired trope and kept me from ever truly buying into the character arcs or emotional core.

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a powerful work of activist and political cinema. Telling the story of two Kenyan woman who fall in love with one another – despite the country’s criminalization of homosexuality – the film may hit all of the beats in traditional LGBTQ narratives, but Kahiu does so with tremendous grace, sensitivity, skill, and purpose. There are startling images throughout the film, and Kahiu effectively uses her closeups to create a sense of deep intimacy and empathy, a tactic that had the film banned in Kenya for its positive depiction of LGBTQ characters. I’d be remiss in my duties if I failed to mention the outstanding central performances of Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva. It’s an incredible film – please seek it out if you can.

I continue to be surprised by the subtlety and nuance of Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience. It continually challenges the expectations we’ve been conditioned to bring to LGBTQ narratives set within oppressive religious communities. At every turning point, Lelio has the opportunity to make the melodramatic choice but instead approaches these moments with grace, generosity, and emotional honesty. Its portrait of a restrictive faith community never veers into vilification and never makes anyone from the community into an easy “bad guy.” Instead, the community is shown to be capable of kindness and compassion, even as they cause great pain to these two women who can’t conform to their beliefs. There’s a gorgeous image almost halfway through the film as our two protagonists leave the community for an afternoon, taking an escalator out of the subway and into a space of openness and light. It’s a powerful exploration of faith and identity, choice and freedom.

Avengers: Endgame

I was a big fan of Marvel Comics in high school and college, and have been a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inception, so I’m already predisposed to liking Avengers: Endgame an awful lot. And for me, it didn’t disappoint one bit. It gave surprisingly poignant arcs to characters we’ve grown to love while making way for the next crop of heroes and stories to emerge. I found the structure to be incredibly compelling – it lets us sit with the grief and aftermath of Infinity War before plunging into the action and adventure. And I’m surprised that such an over-the-top, epic battle with dozens of main characters to follow was (for the most part) coherent. The shot of the two opposing sides facing off was delightful – the cinematic equivalent of a comic book splash page. Over 24 films, I remain impressed by the sheer delight I find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this was the perfect way to close this chapter.

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