Raoul Peck's incendiary documentary I Am Not Your Negro is 93 minutes of righteous invective mixed with shameful imagery. Based on novelist and gadfly James Baldwin's unfinished work on the murders of Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Peck intersperses Baldwin's written words (spoken by Samuel L. Jackson) with archival footage of Baldwin himself on chat shows in the 60's and 70's, speaking at length about the eternally-dismissed racial animus that has been with America since before its founding. Released in the period between the end of the country's first black president (which Baldwin might call a meaningless token) and the beginning of a president who said he would need to look into the KKK's views before he rejected their endorsement, it's difficult to imagine Peck's film coming at a more apt time. There are wannabe Nazi's marching in the streets, and in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck and Baldwin remind the viewer that is not a new phenomenon.
Icon of American cinema Martin Scorsese began his career with Mean Streets and its protagonist's struggle to reconcile his lifestyle with his Catholism. In the intervening 44 years, Scorsese has repeatedly grappled onscreen with his own faith. The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun both centered on religious figures struggling with doubt, and his long-gestating Silence returns to this theme. On the shelf since the 80's, Silence is Scorsese at his most austere, appropriate for a film about 17th century Jesuit missionaries and far from the rollicking hedonism of his best known gangster work. Having long made personal films, Scorsese's latest is cerebral, punishing, and very much the work of a man in his twilight years, wondering about what, if anything, comes next.
Director Paul Verhoeven had his greatest success with the kinds of films that teenagers love, but then they watch them again with more mature eyes and realize that beneath all the gore and comedy, a master satirist is at work. Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers all fit this mold, where Verhoeven used genre trappings to reel in his audience and then wallop them with black comedy and social insight once they're in the boat. In hibernation since Starship Troopers, Verhoeven roared back to life in 2016 with his masterpiece, Elle, a film that is no longer entertaining any mainstream appeal and is instead lampooning the violent male impulse that he had so gleefully indulged in.
Damien Chazelle's modern musical La La Land opens with a big, spontaneous musical number that evokes an era of Hollywood before freeways and smartphones. Smiling dancers jump around on their cars, weaving through a traffic jam and extolling the eternally beautiful weather in Los Angeles. No matter what happens on one day, no matter the level of disappointment and humiliation, the sun's going to rise on another day filled with bright possibility. The film that follows shows how difficult it is to keep up that facade, to avoid being crushed by failed auditions and gigs that take one away from whatever their professional dreams are. La La Land's more cynical than its opening number, as it wonders who would still be dancing and singing joyfully after months or years of tedious compromise.
Pixar's semi-regrettable trend towards sequels continues with Finding Dory. I say semi because though one wishes the hallowed animation studio would create original content like Inside Out, these sequels (with the exception of Cars) have been fun and entertaining, if not profound and singular like some of their best work. Like Monster University, Finding Dory builds on the original's universe, introduces memorable new characters, and manages to tug on the heartstrings. As animation goes, it rests in the higher part of the middle of the genre. It's more thoughtful than its loud and colorful counterparts, but its content to be solid where others shoot for excellence.
Other People shows the viewer the ending at its beginning. This semi-autobiographical debut for writer/director Chris Kelly of a family and their cancer-afflicted mother isn't going to be about triumphing over adversity; it's going to feature the mother's slow decline and ultimate death, surrounded by her husband and three adult children. Thwarting this depressing intro is the kind of detail so absurd that it must be true. While the surviving family sobs over their minutes-dead matriarch, an old friend of the mom leaves a message on the nearby answering machine, obliviously checking in while she places a drive-thru food order. Other People repeatedly finds the humor in the darkest of scenarios, while still managing to be genuine and raw about what the characters are experiencing. What must have been a purgative experience for Kelly, whose own mother died from cancer in 2009, is also a complete experience for the viewer, as the film achieves an honest balance between comedy and drama.
Denzel Washington might be the greatest actor of all time, per the similarly named podcast, and Fences doesn't detract from that lofty claim. As a director, though, he's closer to earth. Adapted from an August Wilson play, the Denzel-directed film might as well be a play. It rarely ventures out from the 1950's Pittsburgh home its central family lives in, and the big and melodramatic roles are better suited for the stage. Cinematically, Fences isn't blowing anyone away, leaving the performances and the writing. The latter can be on-the-nose and occasionally wields a big sledgehammer, but otherwise feels true and lived-in. The former is what Fences brings most to the table, as this is an acting feast. Starring Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom have played their characters on Broadway long before the film's production, are both chewing up scenery and finding subtlety in an unsubtle drama.
An old-fashioned crowd pleaser that combines the Space Race with overcoming racial discrimination, Hidden Figures is a film that works in spite of the many reminiscent films that would shift focus from the discriminated to the observers of discrimination. There are no noble sufferers here, and no white characters that learn lessons at a black person's expense. Hidden Figures is dedicated to the lives of three women, each of which had a level of talent and a self-confidence that would not be denied by something as self-evidently silly as segregated bathrooms. Neither maudlin nor corny, Ted Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder tell a vastly undertold story with dignity, humor, and panache.
Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash is superficially as distant as it could get from Danny Boyle's Sunshine, but they both share a structural problem. The former is about an Italian vacation and the latter is about a last-ditch space expedition, but each are near-perfect films until a bout of violence is introduced and their perfection ebbs. The feeling of a masterpiece slipping away always hurts, but with A Bigger Splash, at least what comes before the slide is brilliant and memorable. Adapted from an earlier Italian film spoken in Italian, this Italian film spoken in English contains the boisterousness of the country's great directors and the beautifully-sketched characters of a director like Richard Linklater.
Jackie Kennedy gets the biopic treatment in Pablo Larrain's fascinating film Jackie, but the film wisely focuses only on the weeks after her husband was assassinated. As she (Natalie Portman) gives an interview to a reporter (Billy Crudup), discussing the seismic event and how she's dealing with the aftermath, Larrain flashes back to moments scattered throughout JFK's presidency, sketching out the first lady's philosophy and her ultimate goal of mythologizing her husband's memory. Larrain and his editor Sebastian Sepulveda weave the film's varied time periods together, and include a tense and visceral assassination scene, punctuated with gruesome sound design, that loses nothing from the viewer knowing how it ends. Anchored by a brilliant script by Noah Oppenheim and Portman's all-encompassing performance, Jackie is as multi-faceted as its protagonist, finding each of her personas and only catching a fleeting glimpse of her true one.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.