If the only Pedro Almodovar film a viewer has seen is the horny plane comedy I’m So Excited, like this viewer has, then one might be surprised that all the Spanish director’s work isn’t similarly adrenalized. In his latest film, Pain and Glory, Almodovar creates a scene where characters with a lot of drug experience discuss the difference between coke and heroin, and that’s close to the dissonance I had watching it. I’m So Excited is a cinematic stimulant, while Pain and Glory is a groggy recollection in a comfy recliner, a film that visualizes the amount of energy required to stand up and do something when the banal pleasures of routine have otherwise cemented a person in place. Contemplative and languid and likely a window into the aging director’s mind, Pain and Glory is a transporting and sensual film about artistic creation and the epitome of the directive to ‘write what you know.’
If Gavin O’Connor’s sports movies had to be compared to the kind of candy Nick Nolte’s lone old man character in Warrior would have in his living room, the strawberry candies with the distinctive wrappers would be it. Hard on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside especially describes Warrior, O’Connor’s best yet still imperfect outing. Taking place in the decidedly unsentimental world of ultimate fighting, Warrior has a level of fraternal, male-oriented weepiness that’s typical of the genre but becomes sharper and more effective by standing in relief to such a testosterone heavy environment.
Peter Farrelly, previously the director of There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, cut his teeth on raunchy comedy and spent 2018 trying to break out into respectability with the Oscar set. He got to give self-righteous speeches at the Golden Globes and other ceremonies with Green Book, a film that has a certain amount of crowd-pleasing familiarity but is blinkered and unimaginative and unempathetic underneath its saccharine surface. The following year, it was Todd Phillips’ turn to make another kind of awards darling with Joker, a film that attempts to mine the Golden Age films of the 70’s for newfound relevance within the confines of the comic book genre. Phillips, best known as the director of The Hangover films and most regrettably recognized as the guy who cast himself as a creep who put his whole mouth on Amy Smart’s feet in Road Trip, is about as successful as Farrelly in their respective efforts. Both made a film that crudely works in the immediate moment it’s being taken in and subsequently crumbles into nothing the further one gets away from it.
Celine Sciamma is known to this viewer as the premier director of the modern coming-of-age film, the latest in a long line of French masters who intuitively understand children and adolescents. Tomboy and Girlhood, written and directed by Sciamma, and Being 17 and My Life as a Zucchini, written by Sciamma, are all raw and powerful depictions of the strong, indescribable feelings coursing through young minds. Perhaps having said all that she can say about growing up, Sciamma moves to adulthood with her period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. If there was any concern that she would struggle to create for a new demographic of characters, it’s almost immediately put to bed. Those raw desires that she’s so skilled with remain, but they’re hidden by their sophisticated adult owners under dense layers of subtlety and suspicion that have to be slowly and deliberately chiseled away. As great as Sciamma’s earlier work is, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is better still, an instant all-timer that will likely live forever on critics’ lists and retrospectives.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Behn Zeitlin’s magical realist environmental allegory set in the Mississippi Delta, brought the director critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination before his 28th birthday, but not unlike his mythical aurochs locked in ice, Zeitlin seems to have spent the proceeding eight years frozen in place. His only release since then, the Peter Pan adaptation Wendy, looks identical to his breakout hit and underperformed critically and commercially. For those who originally dismissed Beasts as a maudlin and exploitative piece of poverty porn, vindication is had, but for those who can see those arguments and still enjoy the film’s many pleasures, there’s disappointment that Zeitlin couldn’t build on a strong, if flawed, debut. Beasts of the Southern Wild has its issues, but the performances and Zeitlin’s zest for the material makes those issues the mere ring around the bathtub instead of the bathtub itself.
James Gray finds the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the feel of Apocalypse Now in his introspective space travel epic Ad Astra. Sailing through the solar system towards Ad Astra’s version of Kurtz, Gray’s techno-futurist vision bounces from unforeseen outcomes to tragic miscalculations, each new stop on the cosmic river providing another instance of space travel and the optimism it represents having decayed into the same brokenness left behind on earth. The film questions what all this is for, and gives a stoic and placid Brad Pitt the opportunity to find an answer. There’s no obelisk of inspiration at the end of Ad Astra, but the destination is worth the trip.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.