Icon of American cinema Martin Scorsese began his career with Mean Streets and its protagonist's struggle to reconcile his lifestyle with his Catholism. In the intervening 44 years, Scorsese has repeatedly grappled onscreen with his own faith. The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun both centered on religious figures struggling with doubt, and his long-gestating Silence returns to this theme. On the shelf since the 80's, Silence is Scorsese at his most austere, appropriate for a film about 17th century Jesuit missionaries and far from the rollicking hedonism of his best known gangster work. Having long made personal films, Scorsese's latest is cerebral, punishing, and very much the work of a man in his twilight years, wondering about what, if anything, comes next.
An old-fashioned crowd pleaser that combines the Space Race with overcoming racial discrimination, Hidden Figures is a film that works in spite of the many reminiscent films that would shift focus from the discriminated to the observers of discrimination. There are no noble sufferers here, and no white characters that learn lessons at a black person's expense. Hidden Figures is dedicated to the lives of three women, each of which had a level of talent and a self-confidence that would not be denied by something as self-evidently silly as segregated bathrooms. Neither maudlin nor corny, Ted Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder tell a vastly undertold story with dignity, humor, and panache.
Jackie Kennedy gets the biopic treatment in Pablo Larrain's fascinating film Jackie, but the film wisely focuses only on the weeks after her husband was assassinated. As she (Natalie Portman) gives an interview to a reporter (Billy Crudup), discussing the seismic event and how she's dealing with the aftermath, Larrain flashes back to moments scattered throughout JFK's presidency, sketching out the first lady's philosophy and her ultimate goal of mythologizing her husband's memory. Larrain and his editor Sebastian Sepulveda weave the film's varied time periods together, and include a tense and visceral assassination scene, punctuated with gruesome sound design, that loses nothing from the viewer knowing how it ends. Anchored by a brilliant script by Noah Oppenheim and Portman's all-encompassing performance, Jackie is as multi-faceted as its protagonist, finding each of her personas and only catching a fleeting glimpse of her true one.
Having watched the decidedly unsentimental Holocaust film Son of Saul a week previously, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a stark antidote. A young boy drives the plot in Son of Saul, but in that case, it's a boy immediately gassed upon his arrival at Auschwitz, barely survives, and then is coldly smothered by the 'doctor' on staff who refers to the child as 'it.' Mark Herman's film, adapted from the book of the same name, makes his protagonist a child, but a child of the Nazi elite, the son of a death camp commandant. This is an odd choice, not unlike telling an offensive joke. If one is going to go out on that limb, the joke better be funny. Herman takes a big risk in telling this story from the side of the oppressors, a fatally flawed premise that could be redeemed if the story is worth it. Alas, this viewer could never get over the setting, though it's not like the premise's redemption is in the film in the first place.
Modern Denmark might be a lodestar of progressivism, but during A Royal Affair, it's a backwater of superstition, serfdom, and despotism. Nikolaj Arcel's period drama finds his homeland at a historic turning point, when the country needed a foreign boost to drag it into the Enlightenment. These kinds of films, with their bodices and cravats, often suffer under the weight of all the extensive production design and costuming, leaving this particular viewer cold. In Arcel's telling, however, the well-appointed events of the film simmer over with high drama. The stakes radiate out from the opulence of the royal court and into the countryside, where a loss of position means that thousands of people's lives become instantly more cruel and devalued. Arcel splits the difference between an Austen romance and a Hugo humanist thriller, crafting the rare period film that can both be about a royal court, and depict character motivations that aren't solely about maintaining a 1% lifestyle.
It's easy to forget that some of the most impactful humans to ever rise to power were once children with unsure destinies, susceptible to changes in luck or support that may have knocked them off course. In A.J. Edwards' The Better Angels, young Abraham Lincoln gets the spotlight, and the viewer is invited to ponder how easy history can be changed. What if that trip to tanning school was completed and he learned a trade instead of being taught in a more classical style? What if he drank the bad milk that killed his mother? What if his father was a crueler man, and resisted his first and second wives' attempts to educate his introspective son? Despite history being written and this film essentially adhering to it, The Better Angels is immersive enough to create stakes in these and other conflicts, resulting in that rare historical film which makes the viewer forget that they know the ending.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.