Nick Robinson in Love, Simon

LOVE, SIMON

You may have heard Love, Simon described as a gay Sixteen Candles – or a gay anything-by-John-Hughes – and it's kind of true, as this coming-out comedy is just as blithe, funny, well-meaning, and contrived as any of Hughes' mid-'80s classics, and certainly just as sensitive to the plight of its teenage protagonist. Yet particularly in its final half hour, director Greg Berlanti's casually revolutionary film is more like a gay Lady Bird – an unerringly truthful, supremely insightful, deeply affecting work boasting more than a half-dozen supporting characters whom you'd eagerly watch in films of their own. Our closeted hero may be Love, Simon's reason for being, but the movie's heart goes out to everyone – most especially its audience.

Written by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, this nearly irresistible charmer is based on the Becky Albertalli YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and the narrative's happiest and smartest surprise is that it proves to be equal parts coming-of-age saga, romantic comedy, and legitimately suspenseful mystery. A high-school senior grappling with his sexuality, Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) has loving, liberal-minded parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel), an adored younger sister (Talitha Bateman), and a trio of supportive best friends (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) – all of whom, Simon knows, would be completely encouraging if he told them he was gay. The teen, however, wants to hold onto his secret for as long as he can, and shares it only with his new, pseudonymous online acquaintance “Blue,” an equally closeted schoolmate who, like Simon, refuses to divulge his identity. (In his e-mails, Simon signs off using the nom de plume Jacques.) But when an obnoxious drama-club d-bag stumbles upon Simon's e-correspondence and threatens to publicly out him, Simon is forced to contend with a boneheaded blackmailer in addition to maintaining his image of heterosexuality – an act increasingly tough to pull off given that Simon is falling in love with the unknown, unseen Blue.

While all of this is understandably overwhelming for Simon, Berlanti directs with such a light and tender touch that it doesn't wind up too much for us. A few farcical detours are played for maximum silliness, including the comedic montage in which Simon's friends come out as hetero to their aghast parents, and the out-and-proud number choreographed to Whitney Houston's “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” [This giddy make-believe sequence is strongly reminiscent of Joseph Gordon-Levitt boogieing to Hall & Oates in (500) Days of Summer, albeit with more rainbow flags.] Yet far more often, the movie is devoted to earning empathetic laughs through moments of familiar, gentle awkwardness: Simon's embarrassment after complimenting a hot (land-)construction worker on his boots; the kid's drunken karaoke bravery giving him the courage to confront his presumed admirer. And through it all, Berlanti and his subtly charismatic, marvelously appealing star Robinson ensure that we never forget the inherent drama of Simon's situation. Even in the film's first hour, before events heat up to their inevitable boiling points, there are beautifully written and played scenes detailing Simon's confusion, dread, longing, and desperate need to share his secret, as well as instances of pure joy – particularly whenever “Jacques” is typing to, or receiving messages from, his invisible soulmate Blue. In many ways, like most rom-coms, Love, Simon is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. But it's wish-fulfillment with a recognizable human being making the wishes.

Nick Robinson, Talitha Bateman, Jennifer Garner, and Josh Duhamel in Love, Simon

It should go without saying that, even in 2018, it's rather staggering to see a traditional teen comedy (or really any mainstream Hollywood movie) whose main character is gay, and Berlanti, the screenwriters, and the cast have pulled off a genuinely miraculous feat in crafting a crowd-pleaser that doesn't undermine or sacrifice its inherent seriousness of intent. As there'd be no point to the movie if he didn't, it's no spoiler to say that Simon does eventually come out. Yet the manner in which he does is so specific to those he comes out to that nothing about Simon's confessions or his friends' or family members' reactions suggest the banality of “very special” sitcom episodes. While the conversations may be cleansing, they also hurt – sometimes just because it hurts, in that good way, to find out that someone loves you as much as you're needing to be loved. (To date, the year's finest film scene may be Simon's post-outing confrontation with his blackmailer Martin, which boasts an emotionally wrenching argument for the right of LGBTQ individuals to define themselves when they're ready to, and not a moment sooner.) I laughed a lot during the sharp, quick-witted Love, Simon. But if the film catches on, as I think it will, and eventually stands as an iconic teen flick à la the John Hughes oeuvre – it feels like the movie that a lot of teens both want and need – it'll be less for its hearty cackles than for its successful evincing of tears.

That, and for the inspiring collection of supporting figures who lend gravitas, texture, and unending amusement to Simon's journey. Garner does some of her freshest, loveliest acting since Juno, and Duhamel, in career-best form, may never have had a previous screen role this good. (I heard sniffles when Robinson finally broke down late in the film, but it was Duhamel's inability to stop crying that turned nearby patrons into vocal wrecks.) The sensible, moving Langford is stellar as the lifelong bestie whose true love is evident to everyone but her bestie, with Shipp and Lendeborg supremely naturalistic and winning as friends whose dream-couple status remains sadly out of reach. Keiynan Lonsdale is sweet and abashed as Simon's early guess at Blue's identity. Tony Hale is hysterical as a decidedly non-hip vice-principal with awkward boundary issues. Logan Miller is fabulously icky as Martin, who, in the school-theatre scenes, we get to see decimating the role of Cabaret's Master of Ceremonies. (When it momentarily looked like this odious nerd might, in fact, be Blue, a girl in the rear of our auditorium instinctively shouted “Ew-w-w!”, and was absolutely right to do so.) And while she only has a handful of scenes, I wouldn't have traded the fierce, applause-earning performance of Natasha Rothwell for anything. With her beleaguered Cabaret director Ms. Albright shown in a constant, riotous state of high dudgeon at her cast's incompetence, she at one point mutters, “I was in The Lion King and this is where I am.” Hakuna Matata, Ms. Albright. At least you're also in something as fantastic as Love, Simon.

J. Michael Finley in I Can Only Imagine

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE

For those who might not know, MercyMe is the name of the multi-platinum-selling Christian-rock band whose 2001 “I Can Only Imagine,” with 2.5 million copies sold, became the best-selling contemporary-Christian single of all time. MercyMe also appears to be what box-office prognosticators exclaimed after the song's movie equivalent made more than $17 million domestic this past weekend, besting the second weekend of A Wrinkle in Time and trailing Tomb Raider's opening by a mere $6 million. Yet having seen I Can Only Imagine, it's pretty obvious what made the movie such an immediate smash, given that directors Andrew and Jon Erwin's intensely earnest pro-faith drama is like a prototypical show-biz biopic without any of the traditional narrative bummers – there's no adultery or excessive boozing or tragic drug use, or even popularity decline, in sight. Instead, we're treated to a fair amount of filmmaking savvy, an unexpected bevy of humor, and an absolutely smashing lead performance by J. Michael Finley, a Broadway veteran making his big-screen debut. This Erwin-brothers outing may be problematic, but moviegoers could certainly do worse than flock to a release with this much heart.

The rags-to-riches tale of how MercyMe's lead singer Bart Millard survived an abusive upbringing to write and perform the band's signature hit, I Can Only Imagine is so slavishly devoted to genre tenets that it was totally unsurprising to learn that many of its most movie-ish moments – little Bart racing after the mother who abandoned him, Bart debuting his tune at a packed Amy Grant concert – were invented out of whole cloth. And while we're barely introduced to Millard's fellow bandmates, we're given even less sense of MercyMe's history and the chronology of events; when Millard tells a record producer “We've been selling our own albums for years,” the news comes as a shock, because the film hasn't shown the struggling group recording or selling even one. But while the movie is hampered by unconvincing sequences and some weak supporting acting and lip-synching (or looping) that's distractingly off, I still had a pretty terrific time.

As directors, the Erwins have been getting progressively better at their jobs in the years since 2011's October Baby, and while their pacing and compositions are perfectly fine, they've become expert at subtle comic reveals, as in the moment here that finds Trace Adkins in a van he swore he'd never enter. Dennis Quaid adds professionalism and quiet fury as Milland's initially hateful father, never scarier than when smashing a breakfast plate over his son's head, and never sweeter than when, after finding God, finally unleashing the actor's signature rascally grin. And Finley, as the adult Milland, is really something special. At first, he seems to suggest a whole slew of chubby, unthreatening performers ranging from Seth Rogen to James Corden to Sean Astin. Slowly but surely, though, the funny and likable Finley establishes a true, complicated presence of his own, and his vocals are divine, with his early singing of Rodgers & Hammerstein's “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” enough to make you long to see a millionth production of Oklahoma! just to hear that voice. (True, in the film's early scenes, Finley isn't exactly convincing as a high schooler, but then again, neither was Margot Robbie in I, Tonya and that didn't matter a damn.) All told, I was delighted by the film, and MercyMe's biggest fans should be delighted knowing that the film's massive success could lead to loads of others just like it. You know how many sequels could result given the band's plethora of chart-topping hits? I can only imagine.

Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike in 7 Days in Entebbe

7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE

I don't know precisely what I expected from 7 Days in Entebbe, director José Padilka's docu-drama on 1976's Air France hijacking by Palestinian and German freedom fighters and the subsequent rescue mission that took place at Uganda's Entebbe International Airport. But I certainly didn't expect the film to show such empathy for its chief terrorists, with Rosamund Pike's determined but wary Brigitte Kuhlmann constantly popping pills to sooth her nerves, and Daniel Brühl's Wilfried Böse emerging as a weak man grossly out of his element – a “dangerous hijacker” as enacted by the last kid picked in gym. I didn't expect the hijacking itself, and the hostages' week-long trauma, to be represented with such decorousness; barring one mild panic attack, one violent beating, and the climactic siege, there's no screaming, no impropriety, and even no impoliteness. (Restroom breaks are freely given, fulsome meals arrive on schedule, and the child hostages are released onto the tarmac to play soccer.) I didn't expect the casting of Brit Eddie Marsan as the Israeli defense minister Shimon Peres, nor for Marsan to be so completely unrecognizable as this unblinking, heavy-lidded leader whose expression and hushed deliveries suggest a man who's seen it all and can no longer be surprised by any of it. And I certainly didn't expect Padilka's offering to open and close with artsy modern-dance numbers that were roughly 10 times more exciting than anything else in this mostly solid, randomly effective period drama. Between its unfailingly competent yet rather drab presentation and its characters who tend to speechify rather than speak, 7 Days in Entebbe will likely be soon forgotten. But I may never forget that crazy group wave that starts the film, nor the painstakingly deliberate movements of that phenomenal dancer who concludes it, nor the show performance that's intercut with snippets from the heroic rescue, and that proves that hails of bullets aren't half as interesting as a dozen shadowy figures en pointe. Even though I likely won't watch the film again, I'll be first in line if its stage version ever tours.

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider

TOMB RAIDER

About an hour into Norwegian director Roar Uthaug's reboot of Tomb Raider – an action adventure inspired by the Lara Croft video-game series that was turned into a two-film “franchise” in 2001 and 2003 – I realized that I'd been watching most of the movie while my eyes were brimming with tears. Of course, that's bound to happen when you can't stop yawning. Uthaug's film follows our nascent ass-kicker Croft (Alicia Vikander) as she travels to a literal jungle island in search of the mysterious evil that may have caused her father's demise. It's also about as bland as wannabe-blockbusters of this type ever get, complete with an international-box-office-mandated detour to Hong Kong, endlessly repeated shots of our heroine leaping and dangling, a booby-trapped cavern suggesting a C-grade Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Walton Goggins as a sweaty antagonist so colorless that even Croft refers to him as “a gun-toting psychopath,” perhaps so we movie reviewers didn't have to. It's definitely a relief to see Vikander taking a break from her recent spate of tremulous-and-weepy performances – even if she's still asked, in certain scenes here, to be tremulous and weepy. And while the film's exposition is graceless and clunky, its star is anything but, with Vikander's lithe physicality, dance training, and washboard abs making Croft's dully staged exploits at least aesthetically pleasing. This Tomb Raider, though, is still a repetitive bore, and barring two appearances by the ever-welcome Nick Frost, the only real fun I got from the film came from absentmindedly considering its casting options. Back in 2001, Angelina Jolie portrayed Lara Croft not long after winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Now we have Vikander in the part just two years after receiving her Supporting Actress Oscar. So it's too bad this movie's production wasn't delayed by a year or two. Because a Tomb Raider starring Viola Davis or Allison Janney? Now that I'd want to see.

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