Having never seen or read any other versions of Emily Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights, it’s difficult to say what Andrea Arnold’s staggering 2012 adaptation does differently. Based on cast lists from earlier adaptations, it would appear that the younger incarnations of star-crossed lovers Catherine and Heathcliff are left out. Arnold does the opposite, giving over half the film to teen actors and the other to their adult counterparts. She also casts a person of color in the role of Heathcliff, a status that Bronte hinted at but has perhaps never before been realized onscreen. Lastly, by beginning the film with an adult Heathcliff (James Howson) and then flashing back to his arrival in the English moors as a child, Arnold frames the entire film as his memory and subsequently films much of her masterwork as a series of sensations as much as a series of conversations. It’s a transporting and revelatory experience, and a fitting companion piece to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women in how both find the time-traveling universality in 19th century works of literature.
Director Kitty Green’s past as a documentarian is all over her first feature, The Assistant. Her journalistic drama is the recreation of a single day in the life of a fictionalized movie producer’s office. This producer, never seen and only heard through doors and over phones, exists in a pre-MeToo world that allows him to flaunt his casting couch practices and berate his staff, particularly new-ish assistant Jane (Julia Garner). Jane’s day is so stressful that one can see her life expectancy shorten the longer she stays in her job. One more implied demand to look the other way, and her telomeres shorten. One more tacit acknowledgement that everyone is complicit in their own way, and her resting blood pressure rises. In its dedication to a single shift and its setting, The Assistant can become as interminable as an actual white-collar day but the complete experience is greater as a whole than in parts. It’s worth the gray atmosphere and harsh lighting to absorb the lesson.
Harry Dean Stanton’s final role must be in consideration for one of his best. In actor-turned-first-time-director John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, Stanton’s wiry, weathered presence dominates a film that is, fittingly, about endings and death. Stanton’s titular character is a version of himself that never acted or became tangentially famous. Many of the details are the same. Neither Stanton nor Lucky ever married or had children, they both served in the Navy during WWII, both lived much longer than their actuarial tables would suggest, and they’re both friends with David Lynch, who plays a barfly who’s lost his tortoise. From that shared backstory, the film puts Lucky in a dusty California town and simply observes his daily routine and the philosophy that has guided his life. The film knows that Stanton is a charismatic presence in spite of himself, and it’s a pleasure to watch him do anything, even if it’s as acinematic as working on a crossword puzzle in a diner.
Huck Finn gets transplanted to the Outer Banks in the endearing Peanut Butter Falcon. Shia LaBeouf, popping up for his semi-annual reminder that he’s far more than an annoying public presence, and newcomer Zach Gottsagen play this version’s raft dwellers, lighting out for the colonies i.e. the Florida swamps. A debut feature from Tyler Nilsen and Michael Schwartz, the Peanut Butter Falcon is notable for multiple reasons, perhaps none moreso than the presence of Downs Syndrome-afflicted Gottsagen in the lead role. He’s no generic, semi-offensive source of uplift, he’s giving a real performance that relies on considered body language and comic timing. Nilsen and Schwartz leave some necessary facets out of their charming film, but the inclusion of Gottsagen is an unimpeachable choice.
Based on its recurrence in my recommendations, Youtube’s been dying to show me a video essay entitled ‘The Last Jedi is a complete cinematic failure’ for years. While I’ve never clicked on the link because I like Rian Johnson’s eighth episode of the Star Wars saga well enough, someone at Disney must have seen it based on JJ Abrams’ conclusion, The Rise of Skywalker. The Last Jedi had its issues, namely an intense conversation with fandom that continuously broke the film’s spell, but it also was a daring attempt to subvert the franchise’s storytelling tropes and push them in a more egalitarian direction, in addition to being a rejection of Abrams’ mystery-box plotting in favor of more considered characterization. For Abrams and his Disney paymasters, turnabout is fair-play and every major reveal in The Last Jedi is undone in The Rise of Skywalker, resulting in possibly the most bland and unimaginative entry of the entire franchise, including George Lucas’ misbegotten prequels.
Singing show competitor turned rising film star Jessie Buckley’s gets a centerpiece role in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, a film bursting with charisma and energy thanks to its irrepressible lead. Harper and writer Nicole Taylor break out from the many movies similar to this one and find new wrinkles and pathways for the aspiring musician protagonist to follow. They incorporate class and the limited choices a lesser financial status provides with a clear-eyed vision of what it takes to distinguish oneself in a crowded market, and with Buckley at the helm, construct a lead with considerable stage presence while also showing how that might not be enough. With uniquely American country music as the chosen art form and a setting in Glasgow, Wild Rose pits the social strata of the old world against the optimism of the new and lets them fight it out.
Seven directors have taken a crack at adapting Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, and it’s difficult to imagine any of those versions or a future version topping the one that Greta Gerwig has brought to screens. Gerwig’s second film avoids the autobiographical trap so many indie-bred directors fall into, where her first film, Lady Bird, succeeds based on a deep personal connection and future projects lack the same authenticity. Instead, she seals herself as one of the greatest auteurs of her generation. Her directorial resume might be short, but when both of a director’s films are the best of their respective years, attention must be paid. With Little Women, Gerwig recreates the tonal structure that she brought to Lady Bird, a structure that foregrounds irresistible world-building with a melancholic back half, and builds a hang-out movie out of a beloved text that is also deftly updated for the current moment. Alcott’s original work is clearly powerful if it has persisted for so long: Gerwig’s take should endure indefinitely alongside it.
Rian Johnson, having dipped into noir, heist, and sci-fi, tries his hand at chamber mysteries in Knives Out and continues his unbroken streak of inventive takes on established genres. In his films, Johnson can be counted on to distill his tightly-crafted plots into one big takeaway, wherein the journey is plenty compelling but the residue sticks around long after the end credits. In Looper, he used the cliched questions of time travel to great effect, and in The Last Jedi, he somehow was allowed to subvert the entire Star Wars franchise, at least until the follow-up entry undid all his work. With Knives Out, an airtight mystery plot tramples upon the pretensions of second-generation wealth and leaves the viewer with a perfect final image and more to think about than merely whodunit.
After Morgan Neville’s tear-jerking, highly successful documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, one might think the public’s interest in once again spending time with the beloved-by-all children’s TV host might be satisfied. Marielle Heller disagrees, and proves that interest is bottomless with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, an equally great fictionalized depiction that casts the equally beloved Tom Hanks as Rogers. Unlike Neville’s documentary, Heller and writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster make Rogers a supporting character to Matthew Rhys’ irritable journalist, but Rogers’ calming and mystifying presence radiates out over the film. It might be the tumultuous times we live in, but as long as the cinematic output around Rogers is so strong, his presence and message remains welcome and needed.
The vast meat grinder that was World War I doesn’t often serve as the setting for war films. There’s so little triumph or catharsis to be had amongst the millions of lives spent, all so the various relatives of Queen Victoria can decide whose boot gets pressed on the neck of the colonized world. At an individual soldier’s level, cinematic heroism is an impossibility; no one’s writing a tribute for the man who avoided the rats in the trenches and successfully hid in an artillery crater during today’s suicidal charge. For Sam Mendes, these impediments don’t stop him from crafting a technically-immaculate tribute to his WWI veteran grandfather in 1917. Mendes’ desire to honor his ancestor brilliantly splits the difference with a thrilling solo mission that transcends its ahistoricity with a dedicated resistance to triumphalism and a commitment to fatalism. 1917 imagines the best possible 24 hours of the war, and leaves the viewer with the bitter sense of how fleeting such a period would be.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.