A tense two-hander for the #metoo movement, Sophia Takal’s Always Shine finds two women turning on each other when their real enemy is the system they’re stuck in. She formulates two approaches to a world run by men: one of compliance and one of resistance. The former provides plenty of social and material rewards, while the latter allows for integrity and isolation, especially when compliance-demanding men are the gatekeepers. Through the lens of the present moment, Always Shine provides a vision of alternate realities. Its two protagonists are both actresses, but the intransigent one is the superior talent while the compliant one is far more successful. They’re longtime friends, but friends with this rotten core at the center of their relationship. Takal tracks the spread of this rot over the course of an ill-fated vacation.
Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda makes deeply felt family dramas revolving around the roles of parents and children and how the wires can get crossed. I Wish focused on two young brothers separated by divorce and their impulse to take charge in reuniting their family. Like Father, Like Son tracked the fallout from a hospital delivery room mix-up, a snafu that potentially reshuffles the two families at its center. Our Little Sister doesn’t have any parents among its main characters, but it has plenty of daughters acting as surrogate guardians to their younger siblings. The least structured of the three Koreeda films I’ve seen, Our Little Sister’s makeshift family is deeply endearing, and another beautiful piece of work from its director.
The textured moral world of Russian novels is alive and well in cinema, if Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is any indication. Zvyagintsev adapts the biblical story of Job to a Russia dominated by the kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin, an able stand-in for a capricious Old Testament god if ever there was one. Evoking deeply-felt character dramas like Kramer vs Kramer at the same time it constructs a fetid swamp reminiscent of Chinatown, Leviathan is a step up from Zvyagintsev's previous film Elena and one that marks his work as a must-see, if a must-see that requires some mental bracing.
The easy line, and one I erased on a first draft, on Equity is that Anna Gunn, having played a critically beloved but widely and unjustly despised character on Breaking Bad, gets to take her own shot at anti-heroism. In actuality, there's no comparison between Gunn's terse, by-the-books investment banker character and the man she was married to on TV. One yells at an assistant in an imploding situation while the other contracts with neo-Nazi's to stage the simultaneous murders of a dozen men. Equity, an underseen financial drama by Meera Menon, brings those differences in perception to the surface. The female equivalent to violence and megalomania in male characters surely isn't a curt demeanor or a wariness about who could potentially supplant you in your competitive field. Why did I go straight to thinking of Naomi as an anti-hero instead of a protagonist?
It's usually a good thing when a film evokes a physical reaction. Feeling exhilarated after Fury Road or Creed or wrung out after Spotlight or Manchester By the Sea are surefire signs of a film's greatness. Conversely, there's the headache that throbs after seeing something particularly irritating, and that brings us to David O. Russell's Joy. Russell's popular renaissance, now definitively over after a consistent, Shyamalan-esque decline, has always included heated arguments and characters shouting over each other, but what was authentic in The Fighter has become intolerable in Joy. Where once there were recognizable characters and scenarios, now there are hideous misanthropes and overwrought melodrama. The only thing that's stayed consistent is the age-inappropriate casting of Jennifer Lawrence, this time as a single mom turned inventor and home-shopping magnate. Joy is a complete misfire that hopefully frees Lawrence from Russell's orbit.
My first experience with the work of Paolo Sorrentino came in the beginning of 2017 with his gonzo HBO series The Young Pope, a delightfully campy, often nonsensical sojourn into a campy, often nonsensical organization. I don't see any reason Pope Francis wouldn't have LMFAO playing while putting on the papal tiara, as Sorrentino's pope does, or that the real Vatican Gardens don't have a kangaroo hopping around freely. Sorrentino's auteurist mind was a fun place to hang out in for a period of time, and there's no reason the same expectation shouldn't extend to his film work. In Youth, the Italian director applies his overwrought dialogue and oddly-beautiful interstitial scenes to another cloistered area, this time a swanky spa and hotel for the rich and famous.
My Life As a Zucchini is a perfect example of the 'sad kids are sad' subgenre of films, a subgenre that consistently work on me. There's no better place for this than an orphanage, where Claude Barras' stop-motion film is set. However, this is no misery porn. My Life As a Zucchini might focus on adorably-animated children recovering from abuse or abandonment, but it's also a tribute to resiliency, to the ability of the young human mind to incorporate the bad into its gray matter but nevertheless seek out the joyful at every opportunity. The French have a long tradition of bittersweet films about childhood, spanning from Francois Truffaut to writer Celine Sciamma's other work, and Barras' beautiful tale fits squarely in that tradition.
Director Paul Verhoeven had his greatest success with the kinds of films that teenagers love, but then they watch them again with more mature eyes and realize that beneath all the gore and comedy, a master satirist is at work. Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers all fit this mold, where Verhoeven used genre trappings to reel in his audience and then wallop them with black comedy and social insight once they're in the boat. In hibernation since Starship Troopers, Verhoeven roared back to life in 2016 with his masterpiece, Elle, a film that is no longer entertaining any mainstream appeal and is instead lampooning the violent male impulse that he had so gleefully indulged in.
Other People shows the viewer the ending at its beginning. This semi-autobiographical debut for writer/director Chris Kelly of a family and their cancer-afflicted mother isn't going to be about triumphing over adversity; it's going to feature the mother's slow decline and ultimate death, surrounded by her husband and three adult children. Thwarting this depressing intro is the kind of detail so absurd that it must be true. While the surviving family sobs over their minutes-dead matriarch, an old friend of the mom leaves a message on the nearby answering machine, obliviously checking in while she places a drive-thru food order. Other People repeatedly finds the humor in the darkest of scenarios, while still managing to be genuine and raw about what the characters are experiencing. What must have been a purgative experience for Kelly, whose own mother died from cancer in 2009, is also a complete experience for the viewer, as the film achieves an honest balance between comedy and drama.
Denzel Washington might be the greatest actor of all time, per the similarly named podcast, and Fences doesn't detract from that lofty claim. As a director, though, he's closer to earth. Adapted from an August Wilson play, the Denzel-directed film might as well be a play. It rarely ventures out from the 1950's Pittsburgh home its central family lives in, and the big and melodramatic roles are better suited for the stage. Cinematically, Fences isn't blowing anyone away, leaving the performances and the writing. The latter can be on-the-nose and occasionally wields a big sledgehammer, but otherwise feels true and lived-in. The former is what Fences brings most to the table, as this is an acting feast. Starring Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom have played their characters on Broadway long before the film's production, are both chewing up scenery and finding subtlety in an unsubtle drama.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.