The stakes for the heroic activists in David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague are life and death. Composed of archival footage from the 80’s and 90’s, France withholds who’s going to be alive when the film ends. Some of the more prominent leaders of Act Up, bright and vivacious in the past, don’t see their quest through to the end. The story of the LGBT men and women and their allies who spent years advocating for their community in the hunt for a treatment for HIV and AIDS is one of passion and protest and theatricality, but it’s primarily a story of people becoming capital-C Citizens, of motivated individuals, their brains and their hearts working as one, marshalling all the knowledge available on a subject and bludgeoning the unwieldy apparatuses of government and big business into tragically-belated action. This is a civics success story, but one built on the 8.2 million bodies who died before a reliable and safe treatment for AIDS could be put into practice. How to Survive a Plague contains the best and the worst of America, a bravura journalistic masterpiece that retains its anger 22 years from when its historical timeline ends.
Controversy isn’t something the Star Wars franchise courts. It is mass cinematic entertainment aimed at pleasing the widest swath of the population as possible. The quality might dip from entry to entry, but the online cognoscenti don’t write think pieces or really argue about anything much more than favorite segments and the role of nostalgia in Star Wars. The franchise’s Manichean simplicity is part of its appeal, as evidenced by JJ Abrams’ series reboot The Force Awakens and its competent aping of the then-38 year old original. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi takes Abrams’ new foundation and significantly alters it, making an entry into the long-running nonalogy that dares to be gray and have thematic statements beyond good and evil. Hugely controversial in its disdain for certain obsessive factions of the fandom, The Last Jedi is in open conversation with what Star Wars adherents can and should expect from their favorite series. That kind of meta layer doesn’t make for the most immersive experience, but there’s much to be admired from a Star Wars film with something on its mind.
It’s easy to dismiss The Shape of Water as that light fantasy movie about bestiality between a human woman and male frog-man. Even its Best Picture win doesn’t stop the jokes at its expense. In the spirit of accuracy, the dismissive stance is a factual statement, in that interspecies sex does indeed happen, but the fish-man also chomps on a finger. Why isn’t The Shape of Water the finger-chomping movie? Joyful director Guillermo del Toro’s most commercially and critically successful work deserves better than late-night jokes, because under its outre logline is a stunning and endlessly enjoyable film that reserves its greatest sympathies for cripples, bastards, and broken things (to borrow a phrase from George RR Martin) at the end of the conservative and stilted pre-60’s era. If that happens to include a lonely yet horny frog-man, then so be it.
The standard image of the phoenix rising from the ashes is that of the majestic creature soaring straight up, powerful and reborn with vigor to spare. Christian Petzold’s searing masterpiece invokes the phoenix in direct opposition to such an image. The rebirth that the film revolves around, in which a woman thought dead in the Holocaust returns to post-war Berlin, is tentative and guilt-ridden, bruised and scarred. There is no spreading of wings, because how could there be? Petzold engages in the myth of the phoenix particularly in how badly people want it to be true, that someone could experience trauma and immediately get back to their life. Like the best films surrounding the atrocity of WWII, Phoenix has little patience for that kind of romanticism, but it also avoids becoming a nihilistic dirge. Petzold, along with frequent collaborator Nina Hoss, finds ugly truths alongside powerful demonstrations of resilience, a cohabitation that is the essence of 20th century history.
The details of Buck Brannaman’s lifestyle are such that if he were a fictional character, no one would believe them. His childhood and his chosen profession are so inextricably linked that they would seem to spring out of the pen of a hack writer pounding away at Starbucks, taking a triumphant sip after tying up a character’s entire motivation. Cindy Meehl’s intimate documentary about Brannaman, the inspiration for Robert Redford’s titular character in The Horse Whisperer, works as well as it does because of its basic, elemental intuitiveness. Brannaman had a brutal childhood under the tyrannical rule of his abusive father. He gets taken in by a kind foster family and apprentices under a mentor who teaches him everything he knows about horsemanship. Brannaman’s specific history allows him to have a unique empathy for horses, having experienced the cruelty of physical punishment to get a creature to do what the holder of the whip wants it to do, and thus he can instantly diagnose and correct horse behavioral problems as if he were Doctor Doolittle. In Buck, Meehl frames this handy cause and effect circle as self-evident, and Brannaman embraces it as he tours the Western US, helping, in his words, ‘people with horse problems and horses with people problems.’
Phil discusses some big plot points for Avengers: Infinity War below the break. If you are metaphorically Captain America pushing back against the Thanos fist of spoilers, stay away.
Avengers: Infinity War is given a very difficult task in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With a whopping 18 movies preceding it and already all but confirmed to be a “part 1” sort of movie, Infinity War had to juggle a dizzying number of characters and plotlines while also providing a satisfying self-contained story. We’ve seen the MCU attempt to tackle this before in Avengers: Age of Ultron. While that movie suffered from muddled confusion without a good central focus, Infinity War manages to involve more characters and more plotlines while avoiding the pitfalls that Age of Ultron fell into. “Infinity War” takes a different approach to the MCU structure and while it doesn’t stand on its own, it does solve many of the issues that have plagued the MCU and accomplishes its ultimate goal of setting up on epic conclusion to the original Avengers saga come 2019.
The Revenant made Alejandro Gonzalex Innaritu into a dominant Oscar force. It gave him his second consecutive directing award after the previous year’s Birdman, putting him on a pedestal with other back-to-back winners John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz. Who knows how cinematic history will remember any individual working today, but where Innaritu lands in comparison to those two is an interesting thought experiment. Ford is someone who mastered the Western and added immeasurable scope to his films while also communicating intimacy in his most famous shots, particularly his iconic end to The Searchers. Mankiewicz had some successes, particularly in All About Eve, but he’s also got his name on some huge blunders like Cleopatra and isn’t a guy that people think of first when rattling off the great directors of the era. Based on the thinness of the films that brought Innaritu his wins, it seems somewhat obvious that Innaritu will end up more like Mankiewicz. An exemplar of the maxim that Oscar wins aren’t given to the Best of something, but the Most, Innaritu’s The Revenant is a series of dares and tricks that becomes punishing and ostentatious and unnecessary long before its overlong runtime expires.
In Stations of the Cross, Dietrich Bruggeman perfectly matches the austerity of the family at the center of the story with his filmmaking. There is one camera movement in the film’s entirety, coming at the very end. Each scene is a single take, representing one of the fourteen titular stations that tell the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Importantly, none of those stations are Jesus’ supposed resurrection, contrasting the joyful, rejuvenative aspects of Christianity with the snuff film that is the passion. This suffering forms the backbone of the fundamentalist Catholic family that the film revolves around. Jesus was tortured and brutally murdered for his followers, an act that trails this particular sect in their every move and every thought. The brutal form of religious fervor on display makes for a difficult and painful film to watch, as the lead character moves closer and closer to a meaningless end.
Greta Gerwig, queen of indie cinema, has been in a dozen films about tentative young women trying to figure out the next steps of their lives. The best of these, like Frances Ha and 20th Century Women, balance a light tone with serious introspection, while the worst, like Greenberg and Lola Versus, devalue Gerwig’s character as either a prop or a caricature. Having taken part in so many versions of that particular archetype, Gerwig is uniquely suited to turn back the clock to 2003 and make her own film about the kind of person some of her characters might’ve been in their teenage years. By also turning the protagonist into a rough approximation of herself, Gerwig can also construct a deeply specific coming-of-age story with an anti-indie sensibility. For all the focus on the titular Lady Bird in Gerwig’s immaculate directorial debut, she’s only one grounded and affecting character in a film packed with them. No props or caricatures here, just love for everyone that graces the screen and a film that is impossible to not fall for.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.