Columbus ***|****

John Cho and Parker Posey in Columbus

Film essayist Kogonada makes his feature debut as both a director and writer with this contemplative and quietly moving tale of two souls who converge during pivotal moments in their respective lives.  One of those souls is the introverted Jin (John Cho), who is working in Korea as a literature translator when he receives the news that his estranged father has been hospitalized for an unexpected coma. Once he arrives in the titular Indiana city where his father resides, he is joined by his father’s devoted assistant  Eleanor (Parker Posey) as they awkwardly catch up on each others’ lives while waiting for the coma to release its hold.

After talking on the phone one day, Jin meets the young bookworm Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and the two open up to each other as they slowly saunter on opposite sides of a fence that separate Jin’s motel and the library where Casey works. We learn that she’s recently graduated high school and despite that fact that she seems very bright, she forgoes the opportunity of higher education and chooses instead to toil between the bookshelves with her work friend Gabriel (Rory Culkin). Over the course of their time together, Jin and Casey share several conversations that center around their shared interest of architecture (for which Columbus in both the film and real life is apparently renowned) but ultimately blossom out to larger life subjects.

With its walk-and-talk pacing and story of the encounter between an older man and a young woman, there are hints of Lost In Translation and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy embedded within Columbus, although it’s not nearly as chatty as either of them. This is decidedly a more introspective meeting of the minds that is generally more patient in the way it allows its dialogue to unfold, though there are times it comes across as frustratingly sedate as a result. Still, the knowledge and wisdom that they impart to one another rings true to the characters and the actors bring plenty of understated charm to their reserved roles.

Richardson, who is something of a new name and face to me (I didn’t recognize her from the thriller Split earlier this year), gives a glowing and magnetic performance full of grace and warmth that establishes her as a major screen presence. This is a film that’s more about what isn’t said rather than what is said and she’s able to imbue the pauses in between Casey’s words with notes of longing and heartbreak that makes every sentence an emotional wellspring. Although it’s great to see a talented actor like Cho finally get a leading role, I do wish that his character was able to open up a bit more as his proclivity for stoicism got to be a bit tedious especially given the much more heartfelt nature of Richardson’s work.

Kogonada and his cinematographer Elisha Christian capture their Midwestern setting brimming with modernist marvels in an evocative and curious manner that perfectly mirrors the film’s quaint narrative. Beyond its focus on the grand architecture, they also take time to build out the small moments too; I was particularly fond of a sequence between Cho and Posey that’s framed entirely around a bedroom mirror in which we see the reflections of the two talking quietly and reminiscing on the past. Pensive and personal scenes like this characterize Columbus as something of a cinematic zen garden and a welcome respite from an increasingly chaotic world.

Mother! ***½|****

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

The new Darren Aronofsky movie mother! begins with a deceptively simple premise: we are introduced to a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) as she wakes one morning in an secluded country house and looks around for her husband (Javier Bardem). We learn that she spends most of her time cleaning and restoring their home, which recently was subject to a devastating fire, and he spends his days searching for inspiration in an effort to follow up his wildly successful book of poetry. Their seemingly peaceful existence is breached when a man (Ed Harris) who claims to be a fan of the poet and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up on their doorstep unannounced and request to stay the night.

From there, it’s safe to say that things spin wildly out of control and with masterworks like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan under his belt, there’s no storyteller that I trust more with a tale about a descent into madness than Aronofsky. The breakthrough with this film and what makes it stand out among the other titles in his filmography is how small the scope of the story is towards the beginning and just how much it encompasses by its conclusion. The film’s sole location, the couple’s home, cleverly follows this concept too, as we’re able to get our bearings on the size of each major room early on but with each escalation in the story, the house seems to expand in impossible proportions.

This is also fitting for a film that applies nightmare logic to near-perfect effect as it lulls us into a sense of security with establishing shots that feel like a dream and then slowly shifts the paradigm of reason to places that are unrecognizable and terrifying. Comparisons to Polanski (Repulsion in particular) are certainly apt in terms of mood while there seems to be echoes of Buñuelian absurdism (The Exterminating Angel especially) as the plot develops but the horror that it generates is unquestionably unique. It’s uncanny just how much tension Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique are able to establish by utilizing just three basic camera angles — close-up, point-of-view and over-the-shoulder — that all center around the central character.

It’s been dispiriting to watch a great young actress like Jennifer Lawrence commit herself to blockbuster franchises like The Hunger Games and the X-Men series over the past five years but I suppose it makes watching a great performance like the one she gives here even more satisfying. Her role is more reactive than we’re used to seeing from her in films like Winter’s Bone and American Hustle, so much so that some may even feel she’s miscast here, but the level of unease and discomfort that she’s able to convey lends yet another dimension to her acting chops. The interaction that she has with Harris and especially Pfeiffer is often loaded with buried emotion, from disgust to jealousy to rage, that manages to find its way to the surface in unexpected ways.

With loads of Biblical allusions and its commentary on humanity and our place in the universe, Aronofsky has crafted a bombastic and challenging work that has already inspired feverish analysis and debate and will no doubt continue to do so in the future. As this is a puzzle movie of sorts, I always come back to the same central question I ask myself when viewing others like it: even if I don’t have every aspect of the picture figured out, did what I see resonate enough with me that I’d find it worthwhile to dig deeper? Immediately after I saw mother!, I knew the answer was “yes” but the staying power that it’s had with me in the days following are an even better indication of its artistic merit.

It ***|****

Bill Skarsgård in It

Based on the 1986 Stephen King bestseller, the new film It opens with a scene that will be familiar to those who experienced the 1990 miniseries: young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is seen  chasing his paper boat down a flooded street until it falls into a storm drain. Upon trying to retrieve it, he encounters a sewer-dwelling clown figure who introduces himself as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and offers him a balloon before violently murdering him. It turns out that Pennywise is the manifestation of an evil that’s plagued their town of Derry for many years and after it terrorizes a number of children in the area, Georgie’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) forms a group called The Losers Club with other affected kids in order to avenge his brother’s death and put a stop to the malevolent force.

One of the most notable deviations from the source material is resetting the events from the 1950s to the tail end of the 1980s, which not only allows for pop culture references that range from Tim Burton’s Batman to New Kids on the Block but also puts the film in the same timeframe as the mega-hit Netflix series Stranger Things, itself largely influenced by King’s novel. It’s a smart move, given how popular this brand of nostalgia has become the past few years but it also strengthens the coming-of-age angle that sometimes gets upstaged by the clown-centric scares from the original story. With its focus on themes of friendship and loyalty, audiences may be surprised how much this movie bares a resemblance to something like The Goonies (there’s even a cruel variation of the Truffle Shuffle performed by one of the bullies) or Stand By Me as opposed to more traditional horror fare.

Having said that, the marketing of It still hinges largely on the menacing presence of its eminently creepy antagonist and director Andy Muschietti does not skimp on chilling scenes designed to send those with coulrophobia running out of the theater in droves. Skarsgård had some big clown shoes to fill when taking up a role that Tim Curry crafted with terrifying perfection in the aforementioned miniseries and if his work here is comparatively lacking, it has more to do with this update’s reliance on computer-generated effects to amplify his performance rather than a deficiency in Skarsgård’s abilities as an actor. For all of the flaws present in the 1990 version, the visual conception of Curry’s Pennywise and its use of simple, practical effects (the less spoken of the claymation, the better) remain first-rate to this day and I wish this 2017 iteration retained some of this more reserved aesthetic.

The rest of the young cast is generally filled with lesser-known actors, save Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as the hilariously foul-mouthed Richie, but the talented bunch of kids do a convincing job of conveying fear in ways that feel fitting to each of their characters. Standouts include Jeremy Ray Taylor as the overweight Ben and especially Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the lone girl of the group who’s a bit wiser and more mature than her male cohorts. Fans of the book won’t be surprised that this production team is planning a Chapter Two following this film’s impending success that focuses on the adult lives of the Losers Club members and I would be shocked if they don’t already have Amy Adams in talks to play Bev’s grown-up counterpart.

It’s no easy task adapting unwieldy source material like a 1000+ page paperback and while the common practice is to abridge or even omit large sections of a given plot, I was delighted with not only how much of the story remained in the film but how many minor details were included as well. Even with a second installment on the horizon, this first chapter clocks in at a hefty 135 minutes and while there obviously was room for more judicious editing, I have to give the creators credit for pushing towards a more thorough adaptation this time around. Their love and respect of the book shines through in their interpretation and makes It a spectacle of horror with no shortage of heart and humor too.

Good Time ***|****

Robert Pattinson in Good Time

Equal parts After Hours and Go with a bit of Rain Man in the mix, the new crime thriller Good Time by Ben and Josh Safdie unfolds at breakneck pace largely over one harrowing evening in some of the most desolate and seemingly forgotten areas of New York City. Yet no matter how empty these places seem, there almost always happens to be someone there, whether its an employee pulling an overnight shift or a vagrant searching for something that may not have even been there in the first place. Just like the protagonist, everyone is just doing what they can to survive in their corner of the world and by setting the film at the most desperate fringes of society, the Safdies incorporate the fury of their struggle into the narrative.

One of the film’s opening shots encapsulates this rage on the face of the mentally handicapped Nick (Ben Safdie), who is in the middle of a tense session with his therapist when his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges in and ushers Nick away. It turns out that he needs him for a bank robbery that he’s planned and while the stick-up initially seems to be a success, dye packs that are hidden in the stacks of money go off in their getaway car and Nick gets arrested during the ensuing on-foot pursuit while Connie barely manages to get away with the dirty cash. After multiple attempts to get the funds to afford Nick’s bail, Connie hatches a plan that involves retrieving a hidden bottle of LSD for a quick profit.

During interviews for the final season of Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan spoke about how his writing staff would intentionally paint his characters into corners that would seem impossible to resolve and then brainstormed the most satisfying but plausible ways to get them out of the situation. Good Time exhibits this same kind of think-on-your-feet type of narrative urgency as Connie battles against a myriad of contingencies and dead-ends over the course of his turbulent all-nighter. Though Connie is obviously someone who doesn’t have things in order, he asserts his street smarts in big and small ways (hanging a mat over a barbed wire fence in order to safely traverse it, for instance) that keep him one step of the law.

On top of the spontaneity in their storytelling, the Safdies also establish tension with tight close-ups of their characters that’s designed to give the audience any kind of respite from the manic energy that is often on display across their anguished faces. So much of Pattinson’s excellent performance as Connie can be summed up by the panic that is constantly present in the whites of his eyes, which are often wide open amid the dwindling opportunities that lay before them. When cinematographer Sean Price Williams is afforded the opportunity to implement some flourish, as he does with a beautiful tracking shot of a car rounding a corner and some deft aerial camerawork towards the finale, he makes great use of the expanded scope.

All of this harried paranoia is complemented by a lush and trippy musical score by Daniel Lopatin (known in music circles as Oneohtrix Point Never) that stands alone as one of the most memorably effective soundtracks of the year. The synthesized arpeggios chug along breathlessly with shady dealings that pervade Connie’s attempt to free his jailed brother but the music also goes into a more contemplative soundscape at times that can seem dreamy at one minute and then quickly turn into a nightmare the next. It’s a perfect analog for the dirty, neon-drenched visuals of Good Time that contrasts the far-flung hopes of its anxious characters with the mired reality that they can’t seem to escape.