REVIEW: Come Sunday

Come Sunday is the most striking film I’ve seen this year. The movie tells the story of Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal megachurch pastor who declared God would never send people to hell and that everybody was saved. But more than that, it tells the story of Pearson’s community and the fallout of his proclamation. Like Silence, it’s a movie about devout Christians which doesn’t claim to have the answers. It’s an empathetic film about a theological debate, to which both sides have compelling points.

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The acting and direction is uniformly terrific. Chiwetel Ejiofor shines as Pearson, expressing his deep doubts, convictions and fears with just glances. Lakeith Stanfield, Martin Sheen and (surprisingly) Jason Segel all turn in terrific supporting performances as well. I felt the segments about Pearson’s home life were a bit too on-the-nose and maybe the least compelling parts of the film, but boy does the rest of it deliver.

The film grapples with the question of God’s love and mercy and the existence of hell. Full disclosure: I do not take Pearson’s side on this debate. But as I watched Come Sunday, I was able to empathize with why he believed everyone was saved while still disagreeing. I also expected Sheen and Segel to become the movie’s bad guys, heartless Puritanical church leaders whom Ejiofor would get to rage against. But they’re not. Instead, they’re loving, human beings. They act exactly like almost any of my Christian friends would. They’re confused and heartbroken when Pearson declares his universalist beliefs and try repeatedly to (lovingly) show him his error. But Pearson believes God has spoken to him, and their arguments fall on deaf ears. They are forced to leave him, eventually, but even flashforwards demonstrate their ongoing love for him and their hope for his reconciliation to the larger body of Christ. They’re not perfect, and Segel’s character falls into the (all-too-real) trap of believing that Pearson’s wrong because their congregation has left. But it was a relief to see a movie where characters spar with Bible verses as they wrestle with a thorny issue, while still remaining compassionate and loving toward one another. Only a late scene with an elder board gets fiery, and it’s understandable in the context.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Come Sunday, depending on your worldview, is either the Job-like story of a man who loses everything because he stands by doing what’s right, or it’s the tragedy of a man, deceived by his own emotions, slowly losing and alienating everyone he cares about. That impression will be crystallized by the film’s final scenes, with Lakeith Stanfield’s character, in which he begs for Pearson to lead him to salvation. He pleads he doesn’t know how to stop sinning but says Pearson can save him; Pearson responds he is already saved. For this hell-believing reviewer, it’s a heartbreaking twist on an earlier scene in which Pearson refuses to lead his uncle (played by Danny Glover) to salvation because he feels it won’t be genuine. Here, he has a beloved, dying friend who genuinely seeks salvation, but Pearson refuses on the basis that it’s unneeded. If hell isn’t real, neither is a tragic; it doesn’t matter what Pearson does. If hell is real, Pearson’s stubbornness–manifest both ways–carries eternal consequences for both men. Which means, in some ways, that Come Sunday becomes even richer viewed through a traditional Christian framework: here is a man who quite literally paves the road to hell with good intentions.

(Spoilers over.)

The film is alternately devastating and beautiful, bursting with empathy for every party involved. I sincerely hope more movies about complicated religious subjects are made, because Come Sunday proves it doesn’t have to be about the triumph of one side or another; there’s beauty in understanding. Maybe that’s what we need more of today.

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REVIEW: Thoroughbreds

Guys, Thoroughbreds is really good. The script itself is quite good, but it’s easy to imagine this being directed in a relatively bland or predictable way. But the direction makes all the difference. From the first scene, director Cory Finley excels at making an incredibly tense, offbeat, nerve-fraying environment where everything might be fine right now, but everything feels mere seconds away from spiraling out of control.

Thoroughbreds is the story of two girls, Amanda and Lily, who hatch a plot to murder Lily’s stepfather. The first half of the movie coasts slightly on its tone as it hits fairly stereotypical beats for this sort of plot, but the back half is genuinely unpredictable as the plot zigs and zags delightfully.

But it’s not an enjoyable, Tarantino-esque murder-fest. Though Amanda and Lily are the film’s protagonists, few will walk away feeling like they’re heroic. Both actresses (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy) are phenomenal at making you constantly shift your viewpoints on them. And the movie packs a powerful message about the dangers of our modern devaluing of life. I am not the main character and you are not a supporting character in my life story, and the instant we forget that–as many have–it can have devastating consequences.

Plus, the movie finds a way to tell a story almost entirely about violence without ever glorifying it the way most films–even anti-violence films–accidentally do through depiction. Violence and danger loom just out of sight of every frame, but the true blood and gore happen off-screen. In fact, if not for a few f-words, I’d swear this film was PG-13.

For its creative direction, restraint, soundtrack (!) and incredible leads, I highly recommend Thoroughbreds.

REVIEW: Super Dark Times

This is the fifth and final installment of Taylor’s “Final [Film] Countdown of 2017,” in which he rushes to watch as many good movies from 2017 as possible before the year’s Oscars ceremony.

It’s been about 20 minutes since the movie finished and I think my heart’s just beginning to settle down. Super Dark Times is an incredible movie that had me hooked in dread and tension like few others this year, although its commitment to tone leaves its final 10 minutes a bit rushed and a bit confusing.

The story is about two friends, Zach and Josh, who are typical teenagers until a horrific act of violence occurs that permanently affects their friendship. Those who know me know some of my favorite movies are about the slow-motion dissolution of relationships (The Social NetworkThe World’s End500 Days of Summer, etc.), so this was right up my alley. However, what keeps it shy of my best-of lists is that I’m not sure Josh’s arc gets fully followed. While Zach’s story is very well-told, his friend’s is ambiguous to a fault–it helps Zach’s story, but it leaves Josh’s actions in the third act seemingly completely irrational.

That said, the movie’s tense, paranoid vibe is incredible. Dream sequences are used sparingly but effectively to illustrate Zach’s untethering from reality. The acting by Owen Campbell (Zach), Elizabeth Cappuccino (Alison) and Sawyer Barth (Charlie) are all really remarkable, especially for their age.

In many ways, this film reminds me of Ingrid Goes West, another fascinating and haunting film that had some issues sticking the landing. Super Dark Times is a total thrill ride, but in the end, I’m not sure whether it had something more to say.

Best Part: From about 20 minutes left to 3 minutes left.

Worst Part: The final 3 minutes. Alternately, the absurd amounts of profanity used in the first 20 minutes.

REVIEW: Icarus

This is the fourth installment of Taylor’s “Final [Film] Countdown of 2017,” in which he rushes to watch as many good movies from 2017 as possible before the year’s Oscars ceremony.

This is my first documentary in the weekend marathon, and I found what I usually found with documentaries: that I had trouble maintaining interest the whole way through. This is more my fault than Icarus‘, however, as Icarus is easily the most interesting of the documentaries I saw in 2017. The whole movie unfolds in such a crazy, high-stakes way that you can hardly believe it’s real.

Certain sequences feel more like a spy thriller or an espionage movie than a documentary. Basically, the documentarian starts off by talking to a Russian doctor about how he can dope himself in order to achieve better results in a race. In short, he’s trying to expose steroid usage from the inside, showing that even an average joe on HGH can hang with the pros. It’s Supersize Me with steroids.

Until it dramatically stops being that. To say more than that would be to spoil the fun of this Netflix documentary, and I highly recommend avoiding further spoilers. I think part of my enjoyment of this film was slightly robbed by knowing in advance what the true subject of the documentary was.

That said, it was still a pretty good time.

Best Part: The doctor’s frantic Skype calls around the middle of the movie. (Kept vague for spoilers.)

Worst Part: Immediately after that segment, the film hits a slight skid in momentum before regaining composure by explaining itself.

REVIEW: The Breadwinner

This is the third installment of Taylor’s “Final [Film] Countdown of 2017,” in which he rushes to watch as many good movies from 2017 as possible before the year’s Oscars ceremony.

The Breadwinner is a gorgeous animated film about Padwana, a young girl in 2001 Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy when her father is arrested by the Taliban. Animation is typically associated with kids films, but while this movie could be seen by children, it’s certainly rich enough for adults. The film explores institutionalized sexism, Islam and even the effect of the war on terrorism on everyday non-terrorists.

Much like CocoThe Breadwinner’s chief competition at this year’s Oscars–the film is not particularly subtle in its emotional beats, but it hits them effectively and hard. You know exactly what the movie wants you to feel, but boy does it make you feel those emotions anyway. (Spielberg films have a similar effect, in my experience.) Padwana’s story, told alongside another folk narrative that ultimately ties in surprisingly well, is exciting, unpredictable and very interesting.

The film also shines in making its location feel lived in. I feel like I understand the dynamics of Afghanistan better after watching this movie. Obviously, I’m no expert–and maybe the film’s depiction is inaccurate. But the lived-in experience of everyday people feels genuine and authentic. The movie skillfully displays the Taliban as menaces and nuisances even to the faithful Muslims of Afghanistan, albeit common menaces (the same way we might imagine violent gangsters in major American cities).

Ultimately, The Breadwinner is a great animated film that people of all ages will enjoy. In a review, I saw someone answered “You will like this movie if…” with the simple “…you like good movies.” I couldn’t agree more.

Best Part: The folk tale animation, often deployed in clever ways.

Worst Part: The movie is a bit “obvious” at times, although it’s still emotionally effective.

REVIEW: Columbus

This is the second installment of Taylor’s “Final [Film] Countdown of 2017,” in which he rushes to watch as many good movies from 2017 as possible before the year’s Oscars ceremony.

Columbus is a masterpiece of minimalism. It’s hard to believe this is director Kogonada’s first film, as he’s incredibly self-assured in his style already. Columbus tells the story of two people: Jin, a Korean-American translator who’s in town after his professor father fell into a coma, and Casey, a librarian dreaming of more who feels trapped looking after her addict mother.

This movie is so different in the best possible way. Some entire scenes are shot from just one camera angle that lasts for two or three minutes. The result is a film that breathes, that lives in the silences. Characters debate early on the nature of attention spans; this is a movie that rewards those with a lengthy attention span.

And my goodness, Haley Lu Richardson is phenomenal in this film, giving perhaps the best performance of the entire year. It’s a shame she got no consideration in this year’s Oscars. John Cho and Rory Culkin also turn in great performances.

Honestly, for those willing to abide a slow-burn and pay close attention, Columbus is one of 2017’s best treats. It’s a shame I didn’t discover it until 2018.

Best Part: Haley Lu Richardson. Literally every scene she’s in.

Worst Part: Hard to think of one. Maybe overly slow in some parts, but honestly, it’s mostly earned.

REVIEW: Good Time

This is the first installment of Taylor’s “Final [Film] Countdown of 2017,” in which he rushes to watch as many good movies from 2017 as possible before the year’s Oscars ceremony.

Good Time isn’t a misnomer for a title, though “good” feels like the wrong word for it. It’s a tightly-wound, often-frenetic film, taking place over the course of a single night. Constantine and his brother rob a bank, only to get caught by the police. When his brother goes to jail, Constantine tries to raise the $10,000 necessary for his bail bond, going to increasingly desperate lengths.

The story goes to some unexpected places from there, with some genuinely surprising twists. I expected perhaps a bit more from the film’s final act, which goes out on a slight anticlimax given the thrilling nature of the rest of the movie. But Robert Pattinson does incredible work as Constantine throughout the film, and the rest of the film’s supporting cast–including Captain Phillips standout Barkhad Abdi–is pretty uniformly great.

Directors Ben and Josh Safdie have a strong sense of style but occasionally overuse it–during the first 10 minutes, in particular, I kept desperately wishing they would film in anything other than close-ups–but the style works increasingly as Constantine grows more desperate. The editing and music do a lot of heavy lifting to keep the story taut and gripping.

As far as what this movie’s in service of… I have a loose grip but I wish I knew more. Constantine discusses his destiny and feels fated to this path, but the movie’s final scene seems to undermine his arguments, presenting a case that everything that happens is a choice. The movie’s final scenes almost reflect the damage of unhindered free will, even as Constantine tries to assert that fate forced him to do it. Granted, this theme feels weakly supported by the film itself, but given the film’s taut nature, it may not have had time for much soul-searching.

Overall, I enjoyed Good Time, but I don’t think its absence from this year’s Academy Awards is any sort of grave snub.

Best Part: Robert Pattinson.

Worst Part: The first 10 minutes of directing. Maybe Jennifer Jason Leigh.