Summer tends to get a bad rap in the cinema calendar, full of blockbusters and superhero flicks. And, yes, we’ve got yet another movie that features Chris Pratt running from dinosaurs, but there’s no shortage of great cinema to be had this season. Favorites from the festival cycle are beginning to hit theaters, while films like “Hereditary” and “Incredibles 2” have garnered good favor from audiences and critics alike. During my stay in New York this summer, I’ve had the time to sample some of these new releases, so for those of you don’t have a MoviePass (if it seems too good to be true, that’s because it is) here’s a brief rundown of the best that’s out now:
The feature debut from writer-director Ari Aster has already been hailed as one of the scariest movies of the year, if not the decade, but don’t expect two hours of jump scares and cheap gore. The horror that “Hereditary” produces is one of a protracted, spiraling discomfort, and the film’s greatest strength is that it holds up as well as a drama as it does as a vehicle for terror—it’s refreshing to watch a horror movie whose dialogue isn’t uniformly cringe-inducing. The film follows Annie Graham, an artist with either a talent or an obsession for crafting miniature scale models, and her family, after the death of Annie’s mother Ellen. To call the Grahams “dysfunctional” would be something of an understatement, as no sooner has Ellen’s casket been laid to rest than the vaguely creepy family drama unravels into an extended nightmare. With uncannily wide shots and disjointed editing that seems to mimic the pacing of a bad dream, Aster pulls off a nearly flawless sequence of increasing tension through the last hour and a half of the film. “Hereditary” is at its best when it avoids tired haunted-house imagery, though—when it shines, it’s an exercise in warped perception and a study of family, trauma and guilt.
Paul Schrader is best known for his screenplay for “Taxi Driver,” the 1976 classic directed by Martin Scorsese, but “First Reformed” showcases his talent as a veteran director, too. Starring Ethan Hawke as the reverend of an old church in upstate New York, “First Reformed” is, like “Taxi Driver,” a deep character study of a tormented American soul. But while the latter was mired in its own nihilism, “First Reformed” is decidedly more spiritual; the judgment of God weighs heavily over every scene, and the static shots and Academy ratio of the cinematography lend the film an eerie stillness. And although the film openly borrows the themes and visual style of two classic productions—Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”—“First Reformed” is grounded in the current moment, explicitly addressing fears of climate change and corporate greed. It’s to Schrader’s credit that these gestures never feel too on-the-nose (including an incredibly silly psychedelic sequence), and the performance from Hawke makes “First Reformed” an early favorite for one of the best dramas of the year.
Chloé Zhao takes an unconventional approach to her films, casting real-life subjects to play characters inspired by their own stories. This blend of documentary and fiction first gained Zhao attention in her debut feature, the 2015 film “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” which was set in and featured actors from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. For “The Rider,” Zhao returns to that state, telling the story of Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau), a former star in the rodeo circuit whose career ends after a traumatic head injury. Knowing that none of the performers in “The Rider” are actors adds another layer of appreciation to Zhao’s story, but the film would hold up even without this knowledge. The performances from Jandreau, his family and his group of fellow riders are all solid, and watching Brady cope with the loss of his one true passion—which we know, deep down, he’ll never be able to return to—is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
For at least two generations, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a staple of childhood, a constant, reassuring presence in the living room. In its full run from 1968 to 2001, the television show, led by the always-gentle Fred Rogers, staked out a unique spot among children’s programming, slowing down where others sped up and proudly showing homespun production values. I remember never quite understanding the show—it felt like a relic of my parents’ generation, too patient, almost sad, for my 21st-century sensibilities. But my memories of it were fond, and it’s that nostalgia that Morgan Neville taps into in the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” an examination of the often-enigmatic Fred Rogers. In studying a man perceived as the very image of goodness, Neville addresses some of the questions audience members may find themselves asking as the documentary goes on (mostly, what’s this guy’s deal?) and slowly, slowly breaks down the layers of cynicism and skepticism that inevitably greet anyone as seemingly spotless as Rogers: The deep, dark scandal you’re waiting for never comes, and instead, you’re left sobbing in your seat to the tune of “It’s a Beautiful Day in this Neighborhood.” It may be a tearjerker, but it’s an earned one.
Did we really need an “Incredibles 2”? It seems like Twitter willed this sequel into existence, a necessary result of all the Photoshopped posters for hypothetical sequels that started cropping up a few years ago by nostalgic ‘00s kids. (Let’s not pretend the Underminer was ever a compelling villain.) Here we are, 14 years later, though, and we’ve got what we wanted. The action in “Incredibles 2” picks up where the first left off, with the superhero family going back underground after the media blames them for the destruction in the battle that began at the end of “The Incredibles.” The first half of the movie, accordingly, is bogged down with the work of filling in the blanks between the two, and the remaining plot never gets a chance to catch up after that extended period of exposition. Elastigirl gets enlisted by a wealthy businessman and his sister to redeem the reputation of supers, while Bob stays at home, juggling the duties of parenting and the newfound powers of baby Jack Jack (hinted at near the end of “The Incredibles”), and while “Incredibles 2” makes passing gestures at issues like surveillance, mass media and body cameras, no fully-formed statement ever emerges. Still, the universe crafted by Brad Bird and Pixar’s animators—a sort of hyper-modernist ‘50s aesthetic, no doubt improved by the advances in computer animation since 2004—is stunning to watch, and if nothing else, “Incredibles 2” is an excuse to check back in with one of the era’s most lovable on-screen families.
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