Marvelous and the Black Hole
Before embarking on her directorial debut, Kate Tsang worked on Steven Universe and Adventure Time, two Cartoon Network series that deftly used fantasy storytelling to dissect thorny emotions. Adventure Time especially never talked down to its audience; adults failed children, leaders resorted to imperfect solutions, and the universe was unfair. In Marvelous and the Black Hole, Tsang brings that same spirit to a coming-of-age story that places wonder and despair right next to each other while providing a star vehicle for talented actors both new and stalwart.
I wouldn’t have pegged Asghar Farhadi as a Rick and Morty fan, but in the acclaimed Iranian director’s latest film, he’s depicted the perfect Jerry. In Rick and Morty, Jerry is the pathetic son-in-law of a multiverse-trotting genius, a monument to weakness who aspires to mediocrity and uses pity as deftly as Rick uses his trademark portal gun. With A Hero, the lead isn’t as loathsome as the comically inept Jerry, but the comparison cannot be missed. Farhadi has long used the exposed cultural tripwires within Islamic Republican Iran to make his penetrating social dramas, and here, his protagonist uses some fuzzy feel-goodery to step over them. In Farhadi’s best film in a decade, the society that makes a man pathetic can perhaps be manipulated by pathos.
The story of the last ten years, and the next hundred, has been and will be migration. Political instability, economic privation, civil war, environmental collapse, it all conspires to push people into stable places that often contributed to or directly caused the instability that made migrants and refugees flee in the first place. Flee is the story of one of these families torn between great powers and cast into an underground morass whose effects linger long after safety has been achieved. Jonas Poher Rasmussen blends documentary and animation in a film that dissects all aspects of the refugee experience, from the uncertainty to the powerlessness. People need to get more acquainted with these kinds of stories because they’re not going to stop happening.
For the first time in his career, preferer of amateur/non-actors Sean Baker dabbled in big-name casting with his film The Florida Project, netting Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination in Baker’s most commercially successful film to date. The lesson he might’ve taken was to make bigger movies with bigger stars, cast alongside whatever area natives and interesting faces he comes across along the way. With Red Rocket, Baker does cast a lead with dozens of credits, but not exactly ones of Dafoe’s caliber. For Simon Rex, that might change in the immediate future, because he and Baker combine to produce the best thing either has ever put their name on. Red Rocket defiantly chases an unrepentant and charismatic narcissist down his Gulf Coast rabbit hole, bringing a porn industry slur and an exciting new talent into the mainstream.
Paul Thomas Anderson can’t stay away from the San Fernando Valley. After a brief stint in a London fashion house, he returns to his default cinematic playground with his ninth feature, Licorice Pizza, a gauzy blend of PTA’s own childhood memories and those of his Hollywood friend, Gary Goetzman. Pre-release impressions of Licorice Pizza looked like this was going to be the iconic director’s most autobiographical film, and while the personal touches are surely there, PTA instead shifts the primary focus to a young woman in her 20’s whose experiences of disconnectedness and aimlessness are set against those of a teenager who seems like he knows exactly what he’s doing. Their adventures through the Valley of the 1970’s make Licorice Pizza the most shapeless of PTA’s filmography, a director already known for eschewing a linear plot. However, who needs an A-to-B plot, or really any plot at all, when the world that’s been imagined and reconstructed is populated with so many memorable characters, all led by two of the best performances of 2021? Licorice Pizza is safely in PTA’s mid-to-low tier, but that just means it’s merely great as opposed to an all-timer.
West Side Story
Of the 70’s era film school brats, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas have made their best films long in the past and have largely moved on from directing. Martin Scorsese, meanwhile, has landed a masterpiece in each of his five decades of productivity, and is likely to stretch that record into his sixth. Final member Steven Spielberg has shared Scorsese’s indefatigable streak, and while he’s annihilated Scorsese at the box office, the critical accolades have been drying up thanks to middling efforts like The Post, The BFG, and the loathsome Ready Player One. However, this film school brat proves he has more to offer with West Side Story, a bravura remake of the 1961 musical and Spielberg’s best film in 15 to 20 years. The old master can still show audiences how it’s done.
The French Dispatch
Without taking a poll, I suspect that I’m in the minority of preferring Wes Anderson’s last decade of work to his previous one-and-a-half. Moonrise Kingdom proved a much better fit for Anderson’s children who act like adults, as opposed to his adults who act like children. The Grand Budapest Hotel became my favorite of Anderson’s films after a second viewing, a perfect blend of eccentricity and melancholy that also happened to be more thoughtful and meaningful than anything he'd done previously. His latest, The French Dispatch, follows in Grand Budapest’s footsteps, an anthology where all the ingredients are perfectly calibrated to amuse and affect in a film that’s unmistakably Anderson’s but is completely lacking in the things that used to annoy me. In telling the story of a magazine editor who wanted everything just so, Anderson writes another autobiographical character whose control and vision leads to something wonderful.
Students at San Francisco’s top-ranked Lowell High School are struggling with an amount of academic stress that looks cruel and unrecognizable. At this viewer’s Catholic high school in southern Indiana, upperclassmen competed for parking spots, not high-stakes entry into elite universities. In Try Harder, Debbie Lum follows several seniors as they polish their resumes and their interview skills, all while considering the elephant in the room of how their race is helping or hurting their chances for something they aren’t sure they even want. This is a fascinating look at the next generation’s world-beaters, unless they burn out in their 20’s under 6 figures of student debt.
The Suicide Squad
James Gunn’s brief time away from Disney and Marvel was filled in exactly the way it should have been. With The Suicide Squad, he made a film that, for reasons both obvious and surprising, the film industry’s leading monopoly would never have allowed. Having demonstrated his utility with a team-up film with two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn again takes on lesser-known comic book characters and makes the fifth or sixth one on the call sheet more interesting than characters who’ve appeared in half a dozen superhero films. It’s generally not a good thing that this genre dominates the cinematic landscape, but the idea becomes more tolerable when directors like Gunn are allowed to take big and irreverent and even challenging chances like this one.
The Green Knight
Dark Ages imposter syndrome takes center stage in David Lowery’s The Green Knight. This viewer has long thought Lowery was an imposter himself, scratching my head at the overheated praise for works like his flimsy adaptation of Pete’s Dragon and his ponderous A Ghost Story. With his adaptation of an ancient Arthurian story, Lowery finds a setting to match his mythic impulses and finally gets over the hump with something close to a masterpiece. The Green Knight wraps its mossy arms around the ambition and the hypocrisy of medieval feudalism as its lead character tries and fails to fulfill expectations that are on his back from birth. This epic film does that with a foot in the cold steel armor of the Christian world and another in the mysterious natural world of whatever came before. Both feet are planted firmly in a cinematic fantasia of rasping foxes and loping giants, making The Green Knight into a package that generates awe in the moment and contemplation long after.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.