Mad Greek genius Yorgos Lanthimos opens his latest film with an apt metaphor for his consistently stellar work. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about a surgeon, and the film begins with his POV at work, staring into an open chest cavity as the heart inside pulses away. It’s just tissue and viscera, sparked by ion gradients. However, what appears to be mechanical contains mystery and incalculable value, much like Lanthimos’ penchant for having his actors deliver flat expository dialogue that still communicates depth and humor and meaning. His latest is another jolt of idiosyncratic black comedy pumped into the cinematic bloodstream, as vital as any element or amino acid.
The idiot plot, defined by Roger Ebert where the plot of a movie could be settled if everyone wasn’t an idiot, could be called a stubborn plot in Marc Webb’s Gifted. A simple and obvious compromise is the necessary remedy in this story of what to do with a young math prodigy, and Webb postpones the easy solution to his film’s problem for as long as he can. He fills in sympathetic characters on all sides of the central conflict, puts talented actors in those roles, and doesn’t treat the viewer any stupider in smaller scenes than the premise is already treating them. Disguise the solution staring the characters in their faces and Gifted becomes a very-good to great film, an indie heartstring-tugger that’s more perceptive and tangled than implied by initial appearances.
A different kind of superhero origin story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women looks at the unique creative beginnings of the DC superhero. Whereas a character like Spider-Man was born out of an economic need to reach teen audiences, psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is pitching radical feminism and sadomasochism directly at comic book consumers in thinly veiled metaphors. Director Angela Robinson’s film takes great care to find plenty of instances in Marston’s comics to back up what the professor clearly stated was his purpose, and it’s amazing that Wonder Woman was allowed to be published in the first place under censors’ noses.
With The Florida Project, Sean Baker continues his tales-from-the-underclass directing career. As a follow-up to his trans prostitute film Tangerine, Baker’s latest contains the same desperate poverty and the same utilization of non-professional actors. Set in the shadow of Disney World, the denizens of The Florida Project live day to day in a flophouse motel, painted purple to distract bypassing tourists from a region that’s supposed to contain the happiest place on earth. Tellingly, the only character that comments on the general crappiness of the Magic Castle motel is a well-off Brazilian woman, baffled that such a place exists and that she might have to spend the night there. While foreigners might be surprised at this kind of poverty in the wealthiest country on the planet, Americans are increasingly accustomed to it. Baker uses his child protagonists to get the viewer to the high of how children can find happiness and adventure in almost any setting and to the low of wondering why they have to do so in such a decrepit setting.
The accomplished Belgian directing duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne experience a career peak in the sublime Two Days, One Night. Their previous films like L’Enfant, The Son, and The Kid With a Bike all mined adolescence for drama and pathos, but Two Days, One Night finds plenty of both in the rigors of adulthood. Aided by a stellar central performance from Marion Cotillard, the Dardennes perfect their oft-stated themes of casual, everyday cruelty and the recognition of those moments.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.