The years before Agnieska Holland, icon of Polish cinema, was born in 1948 placed her parents at the center of some of humanity’s worst crimes. Her father, a non-religious Jew and a Communist activist, served in Polish resistance armies while her Catholic mother fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was named as Righteous Amongst the Nations for hiding Polish Jews. That kind of center-of-history background has informed Holland’s work and led her to make several films about World War II and the postwar Communist regime in Poland. With In Darkness, she tells the gripping story of another person named Righteous Among the Nations, and sculpts an impossible morality play around the role of Poles under Nazi occupation.
After an outpouring of support following a 2021 heart attack revealed him to be one of the culture’s most beloved figures, Bob Odenkirk is primed to move forward into the next logical phase of his career. The pioneering sketch comedian turned compelling dramatic actor goes the Liam Neeson route in Nobody, staking out the next decade as one that will put Odenkirk in plenty of old-man action flicks once Better Call Saul wraps up next year. Produced by David Leitch of John Wick fame and directed by Ilya Naishuller, Nobody recapitulates the John Wick arc of a retired violence-dealer brought back into action when his home is invaded. Odenkirk’s a better actor than Keanu Reeves, but not as fluid a physical presence. Nobody could’ve leaned into that distinction but the lure of mowing through goons is too tempting to pass up. After Wick films ran out my personal bloodlust two entries ago, middle-aged white-guy brutality has run out its thread.
Alleged teenager whisperer John Hughes puts on his supposedly deepest work in The Breakfast Club, though the competition includes the cat poster aphorisms of Ferris Bueller and the Asian stereotypes of Sixteen Candles. One has to imagine a world where teenagers aren’t the center of the culture to buy into Hughes’ idea that they’re overlooked and underestimated, despite the film taking place twenty years after the youth revolutions of the 60’s. It’s not like The Breakfast Club is the first film to take teen emotions and social dilemmas seriously, but it might be the film with the longest reach. If that’s the standard, however, The Breakfast Club fails by its own measure of success. Stripped of its larger weight, Hughes gets some excellent performances out of his Brat Pack actors and, when he can pump his brakes, scripts lived-in moments that sculpt the characters from archetypes into rounded human beings. The Breakfast Club is a strong showcase for its talent, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthy of its reputation as some kind of Rosetta Stone into American adolescence.
In his 2006 iconic phenomenon, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat came from the backwards land of Kazakhstan to experience the joys of America, a place with hospitable people who often say horrible things. Americans, boorish and racist and consumed with empty courtesy though they may be, at least didn’t stage offensive parades and give wide swaths of their population over to anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. Thirteen years later, Borat returns to the US to attend anti-COVID-lockdown gatherings and hangs out with Qanon adherents who believe the world’s most powerful liberals distill the blood of children for precious hormones. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, America has turned into something like Cohen’s imagined Kazakhstan, except no one from the South Carolina tourism department is going to sue him for defamation. Cohen justifies his sequel by simply observing how strange and poisonous America has become, and then justifies it again by gaining a worthy sidekick. It takes more than one Kazakh to satirize America in 2020.
A new level of Jewish cringe comedy is reached in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. Seligman’s feature debut contains enough toe-curling awkwardness to make Larry David sit up and take notice, all contained within a party that’s not as extreme as the events of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! but reminiscent nonetheless. Adapted from a short, Shiva Baby piles tension and complication on its protagonist, a young woman of little accomplishment who’s confronted with judgmental relatives and the thorny untangling of her sexual escapades. Seligman meticulously lays out scenario after scenario to bedevil her lead, and the result is a tremendously watchable film even if it must occasionally be seen through hands over eyes.
For obvious reasons, I’ve always confused The Big Chill with The Ice Storm, and the latter was the one I happened to watch first. Despite their titles and the shared presence of Kevin Kline, these films aren’t exactly similar, but Ang Lee’s acid-tipped recreation of the late 70’s was exactly what I wanted out of Lawrence Kasdan’s star-studded tale of 60’s hippies turned into 80’s yuppies. It turns out the Big Chill has little to say about the withering of youthful idealism or getting stuck in historical patterns, and it has even less to say about the Reagan-era time period it takes place in. That doesn’t make it dull, which it isn’t, but it does make it slight and something of a waste of all the considerable talent on the screen.
Half military recruitment ad and half confirmation of everything the Village People implied about the Navy, Top Gun is somehow more than its reputation. Quentin Tarantino wrote himself a long diatribe about the film’s homoeroticism, but it’s so much more aggressive than one mere the volleyball scene. It’s known as one of the first coproductions with the Department of Defense, but the militarism is apparent on every frame. The culture has undersold the most notable aspects of Tony Scott’s breakout film. Top Gun is shocking in its shamelessness, a perfect vehicle for a mid-80’s America that needed the smallest of shoves to fall back in love with the military and all its wet-butted studs.
Julie Taymor’s turgid and cliché-ridden biopic of Gloria Steinem, The Glorias, had the misfortune of coming out within several months of the excellent FX miniseries Mrs. America. Though Steinem was only one lead of many on that series, it both scooped and improved on every single aspect of Taymor’s attempt to tell the story of second-wave feminism and the women who led it. The Glorias, by contrast, falls into every biopic trap and ultimately has nothing to say about anything.
My Dinner With Andre, Louis Malle’s meal in real-time between an eccentric playwright and a workaday actor, has the feel of a homework movie. A play adaptation that’s also a two-hander about insular theater types seems like exactly the kind of navel-gazing paean to the difficult life of actors that would keep anyone who’s not an actor at arm’s length. I should’ve trusted Malle and actors/writers Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory more than that. My Dinner With Andre knows when its characters are being pretentious and it knows how to break down their pretensions until they’re just humans grappling with the same things that any aging human thinks about. This is the thoughtful conversation a person dreams about having with their friends, and the film itself realizes how rare and meaningful such an interaction can be. Before the 80’s gave itself over to biceps and blockbusters, Malle made one of the best of the decade with two nebbishy men, just talking to each other.
A charming Israeli comedy that teaches the viewer more about Judaism than nine seasons of Seinfeld, The Women’s Balcony illustrates the dramatic differences between a five on the religious conservatism scale and a nine. Emil Ben-Shimon’s superb debut is well-versed in the seductive power of charismatic leaders and the creeping language of repression while also being warm and funny. Assemble a minyan and be taken in by one of the best films to ever come out of Israel.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.