Lee Isaac Chung goes back to his childhood in the pastoral Minari, an autobiographical breakout from a promising filmmaker. A Korean American whose father moved the family to an Arkansas farm when he was a boy, Chung dramatizes exactly that as his characters navigate various divides and ambitions. An immigrant story of the kind that American filmmakers keep returning to, for good reason, Minari’s down-to-earth roots and naturalistic style make for an affecting film.
A school is a difficult place to imagine Danny Ocean setting up shop for his latest heist, but where there are piles of cash and minimal oversight, anything can be turned into a big payday for the unscrupulous. Cory Finley’s Bad Education tracks the perpetrators behind the largest theft involving a school in US history, turning a dry case of embezzlement into a plot with verve and momentum and insight into the thieves and the community they were supposed to be serving. A major leap forward for Finley after his impressive debut in Thoroughbreds, Bad Education provides mid-budget excellence that is an anti-hero character study, a coming of age tale, and a piercing satire all at once.
Jonathan Glaser’s Under the Skin put Scarlett Johannson in the role of a predatory alien who entices men to come back to her home, which doubles as an inky-black slaughterhouse. Her prey willingly strutted to their deaths even when confronted with the otherworldly appearance of her ‘bedroom.’ Candy-colored companion piece Promising Young Woman entices its male targets with a moral morass instead of a deadly one, and per Casey Mulligan’s Cassie, they never make the right decision when presented with the opportunity to make the wrong one. Emerald Fennel’s caustic debut Promising Young Woman puts a contemporary spin on the revenge drama, adhering to the expected themes of those kinds of stories in unexpected ways.
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.
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.
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.
Sean Durkin’s long hiatus from film directing finally comes to an end with The Nest. After breaking out with intense cult psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that also marked Elizabeth Olsen as a major talent, audiences have had to wait nine years for a follow-up and Durkin delivers with a marital drama that retains the level of unbearable intensity that his debut also demonstrated. A film that feels like it could’ve been made at any time during the last seventy-five years, The Nest has a timeless quality that evokes the great actors of Hollywood past and puts it out of step with the grand spectacle that so much of modern filmmaking is increasingly consumed with. Though it’s easily imaginable as a film that Elizabeth Taylor or Paul Newman could have acted in, The Nest also reaches back into recent history and presents a version of the kind of greed that will reshape the world for the worse, all while presenting a picture of a marriage with a rotted foundation. Durkin’s multi-faceted film represents a major leap for him as a filmmaker, or it would if The Nest received any of the widespread recognition that it deserves.
Gavin O’Connor’s three sports movies have moved from the straightforward Miracle to sports-as-therapy male weepie Warrior. O’Connor’s newest film, The Way Back, follows a similar track as Warrior wherein some kind of medical extremity forces a character with father issues through a physical transformation, only to find some kind of clarity through sports. It’s a more interesting tack than the head-down, work-hard, believe-in-yourself messaging so many lesser sports movies engage in. In fact, endless wind sprints won’t cure one’s alcohol problems and profane anger directed towards referees isn’t an appropriate way of releasing stress and pressure. Featuring a career-best performance from Ben Affleck in a period of his life that mirrors his character, The Way Back is less triumphant buzzer-beater and more incremental improvement over the course of a season. The former leaves the viewer in a cheerier place, but the latter contains far more truth.
Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables has retained all of the raw power of its depictions of the French underclass some 160 years after its publishing, and in Ladj Ly’s fiery film of the same name, circumstances haven’t improved all that much. The gamins of the present-day Montfermil banlieue still grow up in an environment where state authority is abusive and local authority is corrupt. To paraphrase Hugo, both forces contribute to the clouds that will inevitably produce a thunderbolt, and Ly’s film does indeed strike lightning. A film that has only become more relevant throughout 2020, as France has its own version of Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality and stop-and-frisk tactics, Les Miserables is a work that places a lot of pressure on itself with its iconic name and meets those expectations by embracing an angry humanist streak that Hugo would recognize.
Of all the Catholic hymns I had to sit through as a child, one that still sticks out is the one with its refrain of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ A Catholic audience was surely supposed to take that as a ban on complaining about any matter large or small, but a better understanding of its accusatory nature would point its finger at god. Even Jesus on the cross wondered why he had been forsaken. Terence Malick opens his greatest film, The Tree of Life, with a similar question towards Job, except it’s god taunting Job’s misfortune and his daring to question god’s purpose. Where were you, Job, when I shaped all things? Malick proceeds to interrogate the god-to-subject and subject-to-god relationship in a film whose timeline spans billions of years. The Tree of Life is the ultimate in the universal drilling down into the specific, a scope that few filmmakers would be able to get their arms around. Malick, a director who has always found time for digressions on natural beauty, gloriously makes it work.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.