Ryan Coogler’s Creed was the rare seventh entry in a franchise that could make an play for being the peak of the series. Replicating Creed’s contemporary relevance, cinematic power, and the series’ best acting would be a difficult task for Creed 2, the eighth film featuring the characters created by Sylvester Stallone 42 years ago. Not only has Coogler stepped aside, but the film takes its antagonist from Rocky’s corniest fight, in which the stakes were no less than the persistence of the Soviet Union. In his takeover as director, Steven Caple Jr builds on what Coogler reinvigorated, namely relying on lead Michael B. Jordan’s wounded intensity and getting surprisingly strong performances out of franchise characters. The franchise can digest a little corn when the bones are this strong.
After five years, Steve McQueen returns to cinema, not with another bracing historical drama or psychological gauntlet, but by trying his hand at genre filmmaking, specifically the tried-and-true heist. Unsurprisingly, based on the bravura work on display in films like Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, McQueen brings the same headiness and depth to Widows. There’s presumably no genre that the English director can’t excel at, especially when he’s gained the clout to assemble a cast that includes rising stars like Carrie Coon and established icons like Robert Duvall, both of which hang out around the double digits on the call sheet. Led by Viola Davis and written by Gillian Flynn, Widows’ pedigree considerably elevates it before the first shots, and McQueen wrings every last drop of potential from the premise and the assembled talent.
Some stories are so gripping and dramatic that a newly-graduated film student could capably shape them into a watchable documentary. Three Identical Strangers is one of these stories. Directed by Tim Wardle, this retelling of an 80’s afternoon talk show staple is fascinating enough on its surface. The joy and charisma of the subjects further elevates it, and where the story ultimately goes elevates it further still. Wardle gets the maximum amount of access, but he doesn’t fully trust the story, spiking it with needle drops and unnecessary flashbacks to scenes that occurred shortly before, as if any of this was forgettable.
Trey Edward Shults’ micro-budget debut Krisha initially seems like it’s going to be some slasher horror flick, what with the sharp strings that accompany a nude unblinking woman coming into frame. Instead, this is only a representation of the woman’s worst impulses, fated to emerge at a Thanksgiving dinner. Filmed at his parents’ home and cast with several family members who happen to be professional actors, Krisha could still be categorized as horror but of the psychological, melodramatic variety. It doesn’t get any less uncomfortable or stressful just because there isn’t a knife-wielding maniac stalking the family.
What makes Felix van Groeningen’s addiction drama Beautiful Boy stand out is how it differs from other films like it. Stories about relapse and recovery and rock bottom have built in tension and act transitions, and they often choose to end happily with some breakthrough, giving the viewer the impression that the events of the film only depict a phase in a character’s life and not a continuous struggle. Beautiful Boy, adapted from David and Nic Sheff’s memoirs, discards that triteness, rightfully so. If addiction is a chronic disease, then preventing relapse is a lifelong and daily process, and for Groeningen, who made the similarly unflinching Broken Circle Breakdown, this struggle must be shown in its maddening truth. That kind of admirable honesty, where every victory is temporary and choosing to do nothing can be the best choice, perversely makes the film itself into a slog, an earned one but a slog nonetheless.
Ever wonder what the Superbad sequel would be? If so, Booksmart is it, except it was unfunny. Directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart took the last day of high school through the perspective of two highly motivated, ambitious, intelligent, and involved senior girls – Amy and Molly – who believed in the mantra “hard work pays off.” When Molly (Beanie Feldstein) learned those whom she looked down up academically also had ambitious post – high school plans, she was stunned. A few scenes later, Molly convinced her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) to tag along with her on a carefree night out.
Coinciding with the centennial of the end of WWI, the latest adaptation of the British play Journey’s End manages to remain potent and devastating, no matter how many casts and directors take a crack at it. So few films are set during this, the crucial event of the 20th century, that there may be some scarcity-induced grade elevation. It’s so important for audiences to consider a war that didn’t have simple good and evil dichotomies, but the material is so bleak and dreadful that it’s also understandable for studios to shy away from depictions of grinding trench warfare. Journey’s End might situate the viewer on the side of the eventual victors, but the film communicates the minimal comfort that status conveys.
Capitalizing on two Hollywood trends at once, Ocean’s 8 both reboots a familiar property and gender-swaps its cast. With the former trend being a further capitalistic repackaging of art as commerce and the latter a progressive pitch to hopefully obscure the aforementioned grubbiness, Ocean’s 8 is slightly better than a previous attempt to thread this exact needle (Ghostbusters) but not anywhere good enough to justify the considerable talents of the actors involved. Director Gary Ross apes the directorial style of Steven Soderbergh’s male-led Oceans trilogy, film that I like just fine, but there’s something lost in translation from a director with vision to one doing an imitation. Too often, when it’s not a commercial or a promotional video, an imitation is what Ocean’s 8 feels like.
Though it might push the doomsday clock closer to midnight, spycraft aficionados rejoice at the reemergence of Russia as a global adversary and therefore a stock villain in Hollywood movies. A few seconds more towards nuclear annihilation is a small price to pay if it means more dead drops and surveillance on the big screen. Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow doesn’t even bother to place its tale of Russian espionage during Soviet days, preferring to set itself in the modern day. One can imagine the marketing team saying a prayer of thanks when Maria Butina was arrested in the months before its release. Serendipitously relevant only in the broadest geopolitical sense, Red Sparrow is a perfectly fine thriller, albeit one with little to say about the modern Russia its wunderkind spy lives in.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s naturalistic films layer emotional truth onto high-concept family dramas. Still Walking is the least high-concept of his films that I’ve seen, but that doesn’t diminish its potency. Koreeda brings it early, reminding the viewer how superb he is as a crafter of achingly real cinema with a simple scene of a hobbled old man on a morning stroll greeting his neighbors. Elegance and poignancy from something so elemental makes Still Walking, like all of Koreeda’s family dramas, instantly watchable and endearing.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.