Kathryn Bigelow’s partnership with writer Mark Boal hits a bump with Detroit. The two have produced exceptional work with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but Detroit lacks the former’s psychological specificity and the latter’s ability to coherently adapt an unfolding story. Detroit certainly contains Bigelow’s flair for generating unbearable levels of tension. However, in choosing to focus on what it focuses on, it becomes didactic in a way that her and Boal’s recent works studiously avoid. It also is a story of racism and police abuse that feels unnecessary when the contemporary equivalent can be easily found fifty years after the events of the film. Zero Dark Thirty contained scenes of actual torture, but it was impossible to call it torture porn. Detroit, as well made as it is, has a hard time shaking that label.
Americans have long looked west for rejuvenation and reinvention, trampling others that were already there in search of their own interests. Despite all the trappings of modernity in Matt Spicer’s exceptional debut, Ingrid Goes West is a tale that could be easily adapted to any US period of the last few hundred years. This is the story of the coward Robert Ford, of Oklahoma homesteaders, of the ancestors of those homesteaders on their way to California during the Great Depression. Aubrey Plaza’s titular protagonist is no one’s idea of a frontierswoman, as she chooses to use her dwindling funds for beer instead of toilet paper and is never shown eating something that wasn’t hastily prepared for her and pushed out a drive-thru, but she still traverses the country and into an unknown and tenuous future, equipped with her stake and her online profile. Both a Western without the spurs and a satire without much exaggeration, Spicer joins the group of 2017 debut directors, already populated with the likes Jordan Peele and Julia Ducournau, who have wildly succeeded in their first outings.
Exactly no one believed that prolific director Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from filmmaking would stick. Soderbergh took a few years to dabble in television, with exceptional results, and he finally returns to the big screen with Logan Lucky. His latest revisits the grand heists of Ocean’s 11, replacing the gawdy glitz of Las Vegas with the drawls of West Virginia. Soderbergh roars back to life as surely as the NASCAR vehicles featured in a film that retains the charm and humor of his other caper films while adding levels of earned sentimentality that his work has often been too cool to engage with.
Taylor Sheridan has made his name as the writer behind crackling Southwestern thrillers like Sicario and Hell and High Water. After this productive period, he returns behind the camera for Wind River, a film far from the desert but as bleak as those landscapes are dry. There are striking similarities between all three, like culture clashes, communities in decline, and a female outsider butting up against entrenched and male-dominated systems, but why change what’s been working? Sheridan maintains his above-average credentials with Wind River, another quality entry in the emerging genre of the contemporary wilderness Western kicked off by No Country For Old Men.
Having directed the groundbreaking action flick John Wick together in 2014, stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch parted ways three years later. With each releasing their own films in 2017, Stahelski and Leitch invited a friendly contest between them. Stahelski’s John Wick sequel was more of the same, stylish but drained of the emotional throughline that made the original’s high body count somewhat meaningful instead of outright exhausting. With Atomic Blonde, Leitch appears to be uninterested in repeating himself outside of capturing more visceral, bone-crunching action. His film trades the criminal underworld for Cold War espionage, casts a far-better actor in the lead, and retains a passable amount of resonance, all combining to demonstrate that he’s the more talented director of the two.
The accomplished Belgian directing duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne experience a career peak in the sublime Two Days, One Night. Their previous films like L’Enfant, The Son, and The Kid With a Bike all mined adolescence for drama and pathos, but Two Days, One Night finds plenty of both in the rigors of adulthood. Aided by a stellar central performance from Marion Cotillard, the Dardennes perfect their oft-stated themes of casual, everyday cruelty and the recognition of those moments.
The conclusion of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy takes heavy biblical inspiration in its story of series protagonist Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading his people to their land of milk and honey, or whatever the equivalent is for apes. Director Matt Reeves returns following his successful turn in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but this time out, it’s darkest before the dawn. War for the Planet of the Apes features no idyllic interregnum before things deteriorate. There isn’t time for a peaceful bonding period between a younger Caesar and a kind James Franco like in Rise, or a prolonged demonstration of the cohesive ape society like in Dawn. Reeves is making a full-on war epic to match his film’s title, ramping up the stakes to survival or extinction for the titular apes or the humans they’re fighting against.
In the ongoing saga of George Lucas’ Star Wars, the eighth episode sets itself apart from the rest. In The Last Jedi, homage is subtly paid to older saga moments and characters as well as directors Rian Johnson’s and Lucas’ previous works and mentors, which is not new from the previous film, but this one is more complex and thought provoking than any other in the series.
The Last Jedi immediately continues from episode seven, The Force Awakens. Viewers get an answer from Luke Skywalker as Rey presents him with his old lightsaber, which may or may not be predictable but it is fitting.
Christopher Nolan takes a break from ponderous superhero epics and/or space operas to make one of the most compact and straightforward films of his career. Dunkirk eschews any of the speechifying or puzzle-box plotting that drags down films like Interstellar and Inception for a historical snapshot where the players are simply in one place and would like to get to another. While Nolan is shucking most of his crutches, he’s accentuating his strengths, particularly the generation of unbearable tension and the capturing of performances borne out of high stress. This distillation results in Nolan’s best film, an unmissable reclassification of what it means to be heroic.
When people hear about independent movies, they don’t usually think about nine-figure budgets and heavy visual effects. The connotation is one of quirk, small relationship drama, and emotional realism. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may have been funded outside of the studio system, technically making it an indie film, but it has exactly none of the hallmarks of films that follow a similar financial path to release. If the advantage of making something outside of the system is to have fuller control over the end product, Luc Besson’s long-gestating passion project squanders that asset with an abysmal amount of toe-curling repartee. Valerian contains George Lucas-level dialogue and character, a neutralization of the George Lucas-level imagination and world-building that’s also on display. If the admittedly novel and unique environment is staffed with cardboard cutouts absent any charisma or human traits, why am I spending time in it?
Random projects from the MMC Universe.