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.
Early pandemic articles contained grabby headlines about the nuclear family not being enough to sustain a full life, especially when broader alternatives are ruled out by public health concerns. It’s been almost two years, and while I don’t think Pablo Larrain wrote those articles for Slate and similar publications, his boundary-breaking film Ema has the same sentiment. At least its protagonist shares the view that restricting the human heart (and genitals) to a small group of people is folly, and her task over the course of the film is to convince, or entrap, others to feel that same. Ema throbs with physical and sexual energy, part music video and part psychodrama and all the best work of Larrain’s unique career.
Lin-Manuel Miranda went the semi-autobiographical route for his theater debut In the Heights, a musical set in the working class Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. Though Miranda’s professional family lived in the adjacent neighborhood, he had the good sense to notice that the better stories were with the nurses than the doctors, the storefront owner than the chain owner. After In the Heights’ success on Broadway and the greater success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the inevitable film version of In the Heights arrived during the thwarted hot vax summer, a time when the brief window of normalcy between COVID variants could be celebrated onscreen with a crowded production of singing stars and hundreds of dancing extras. Jon Chu’s adaptation didn’t receive the commercial reception it was aiming for, but it is nevertheless a joyous explosion for the musical-skeptic that overpowers the corniness baked into the genre with Latin verve and charisma.
Dexter Fletcher’s previous work as a director, subbing in at the last-minute for unreliable alleged rapist Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody, was insufficient to save that Queen biopic from arriving into theaters as a hacky mess and potentially the worst Best Picture nominee in decades, but Fletcher’s navigation of a story heavily influenced by its musician subjects was satisfactory enough to get him a job in the exact same subgenre. Like the surviving members of Queen, Elton John has long shopped a film about his early life and career, and the filmgoing market is clearly primed for songbook musicals, regardless of quality. With the parody Walk Hard far in the background as a guidebook of what not do to and Bohemian Rhapsody as a recent example of how terrible a film can be if every canard and trope is indulged, Fletcher’s Rocketman doesn’t reinvent a well-work wheel but it finds considerable stylistic flourishes to at least make the ride smoother.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.