The easy line, and one I erased on a first draft, on Equity is that Anna Gunn, having played a critically beloved but widely and unjustly despised character on Breaking Bad, gets to take her own shot at anti-heroism. In actuality, there's no comparison between Gunn's terse, by-the-books investment banker character and the man she was married to on TV. One yells at an assistant in an imploding situation while the other contracts with neo-Nazi's to stage the simultaneous murders of a dozen men. Equity, an underseen financial drama by Meera Menon, brings those differences in perception to the surface. The female equivalent to violence and megalomania in male characters surely isn't a curt demeanor or a wariness about who could potentially supplant you in your competitive field. Why did I go straight to thinking of Naomi as an anti-hero instead of a protagonist?
The title of Sam Blair and Joe Martin's documentary Keep Quiet comes from an interview they conduct with a survivor of the Auschwitz death machine. She returned to her Hungarian home after the war, and found that the titular maxim was the best thing for her and her remaining family in a country that Adolph Eichmann said, at his trial, contained the most exuberant collaborators in rounding up Jews. She so closely stuck to her rules that her grandson, Csanad Szegedi, would help found a successful anti-Semitic fascist party in Hungary. Szegedi would live well into adulthood before he would take notice of the serial number tattoo on his grandmother's forearm. Keep Quiet is a bracing film with a foot in the present and a foot in the past, a reminder that the latter always informs the former. It's also a fascinatingly relevant picture of right-wing extremism, of the coded language and skillful, noxious messaging that continues to tap into the body politic's worst impulses.
The iconic xenomorph from the Alien franchise returns in Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, the eighth film featuring the xenomorph and the third with Scott at the helm. Covenant finds the franchise in an odd place. Prometheus, while a joy to look at, was a grandiose jumble of plot holes and mischaracterization, a descent for a franchise that experienced its greatest success in competent people experiencing primal, visceral horror. Covenant continues in both trends, finding biblical parables where none are necessary and grafting didactic motivations onto characters in pursuit of a muddled theme. It's a modest step up from Prometheus, but with so much proven potential for greatness around Alien, anything less than a hit is a disappointment.
In The Lost City of Z, well-regarded American director James Gray takes a page from legendary German director Werner Herzog. There's a fair amount of Fitzcarraldo in Gray's jungle-trekking protagonist Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), though Gray takes a far kinder view than Herzog towards the purpose of the onscreen mission. Where Herzog's favored lead, Klaus Kinski, was impossible to believe as a pure-hearted character and therefore was never cast as one, Gray's choice of Hunnam gives him a straightforward hero trekking towards his own glory and plugging away at the small-minded beliefs of his fellows. The Lost City of Z loses something in that uncomplicating, but still leaves the viewer with plenty to chew on. In this decades-spanning adventure, Gray weaves a dense tale of obsession, regret, and pride under the umbrella of imperialism.
Jordan Peele made his name as part of a comedy team known for sending up the interactions between black and white people, for finding the absurdities and inanities in what the latter expects from the former. Code-switching seemed to factor into every episode of Key and Peele, something the biracial Peele surely had to contend with as a child and as an adult. Peele brings that sensibility to Get Out, a Polanski-esque instant horror classic. The best horror films often contend with social commentary, and Get Out is no exception, taking the implicit envy white people have for black culture to an extreme conclusion. That the breakout critical and commercial hit of 2017 is also scathing and intelligent makes for a hopeful statement on the potentially increasing sophistication of the movie-going public.
Contact is about nothing more than humanity's place in the universe and how we see ourselves fitting into it. This breadth is fitting for writers like Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, whose earlier work in TV includes the seminal series Cosmos. Sagan, an astronomer and brilliant science communicator, died shortly before Contact's release, but Contact is an often-beautiful distillation of his worldview and his way of thinking. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster, Contact brings Sagan briefly back to life, asking the kinds of questions he asked through his scientifically-skeptical outlook. It's not a perfect film, but as far as films pitched directly to me, this one's right down the middle.
It's usually a good thing when a film evokes a physical reaction. Feeling exhilarated after Fury Road or Creed or wrung out after Spotlight or Manchester By the Sea are surefire signs of a film's greatness. Conversely, there's the headache that throbs after seeing something particularly irritating, and that brings us to David O. Russell's Joy. Russell's popular renaissance, now definitively over after a consistent, Shyamalan-esque decline, has always included heated arguments and characters shouting over each other, but what was authentic in The Fighter has become intolerable in Joy. Where once there were recognizable characters and scenarios, now there are hideous misanthropes and overwrought melodrama. The only thing that's stayed consistent is the age-inappropriate casting of Jennifer Lawrence, this time as a single mom turned inventor and home-shopping magnate. Joy is a complete misfire that hopefully frees Lawrence from Russell's orbit.
Raw is one of those films that engenders visceral reactions in its viewers. Its showings have apparently resulted in the paramedics being called in after audience members have fainted. Even the trailer dares the viewer to look away. As the latest entry into the company of the French Extremity genre, along with gorefests like Martyrs and Gaspar Noe's nightmare landscapes, Raw deserves its grotesque reputation, but it is not solely going for cheap thrills. Julia Ducournau's intense but heady film is a feast for the eyes, as oddly beautiful and entrancing as a story about a sheltered veterinary student's cannibalistic awakening could possibly be. Ducournau throws down a challenge to stomach her work and an invitation to experience it. Both are worth accepting.
Hugh Jackman's portrayed Logan, otherwise known as Wolverine, in nine films dating back seventeen years. Over that period, the X-Men films featuring Jackman have been all over the map, spanning from the execrable to the entertaining. However, he's never been at the center of a film like Logan, his final bravura outing in the role. While the X-Men films keep getting bigger, with larger casts and greater destruction, the stand-alone Wolverine films keep getting smaller as the casts constrict and there's a turn toward the internal. That focus bears substantial fruit in Logan, by far the best X-Men film in the extended franchise, and one of the best superhero films in the present era that Wolverine and the X-Men arguably kicked off.
My first experience with the work of Paolo Sorrentino came in the beginning of 2017 with his gonzo HBO series The Young Pope, a delightfully campy, often nonsensical sojourn into a campy, often nonsensical organization. I don't see any reason Pope Francis wouldn't have LMFAO playing while putting on the papal tiara, as Sorrentino's pope does, or that the real Vatican Gardens don't have a kangaroo hopping around freely. Sorrentino's auteurist mind was a fun place to hang out in for a period of time, and there's no reason the same expectation shouldn't extend to his film work. In Youth, the Italian director applies his overwrought dialogue and oddly-beautiful interstitial scenes to another cloistered area, this time a swanky spa and hotel for the rich and famous.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.