Horror maestro Mike Flanagan finds himself caught between two cultural titans in Doctor Sleep. Stephen King wrote the book as a sequel to The Shining, the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of which King famously hated. Flanagan uses the book material and the movie aesthetic to bridge the gap between the two, making a film with plenty of King’s habits while paying homage to Kubrick. The latter works because Kubrick was a singular genius and even the slightest of visual nods to his films give considerable oomph. The former works… less well. The second slavish recreation of The Shining in as many years after Ready Player One, Doctor Sleep provides an imperfect follow-up that doesn’t sell its necessity as a sequel, though it has plenty of its own joys and thrills.
Robert Eggers’ staggering debut The Witch took the worst fears of its Puritan protagonists and made them real. His follow-up, The Lighthouse, does the same with the legends and superstitions of 19th century seamen, but to lesser effect. Eggers’ talents for immersion remain as potent as ever, relying on the lighting implements of the time as well as the speech patterns and vocabulary of a particular subset of people. With its addition of a palpable foulness, The Lighthouse doesn’t prompt a lean-in like The Witch did. This is an environment worth running from. One can only be so immersed before rebellion sets in.
It doesn’t take any great cultural perception to call James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari a movie for dads, but it satisfies too many stereotypical expectations to not make mention of it. This is a film about cars and motor racing. It’s set in the 60’s, but the Mad Men, Americana part of it that’s far away from the counter-culture. Plenty of recognizable names show up for those that have read the Wall Street Journal for several decades, and it has an unthinking patriotism that equates corporate success with national success. Ford v Ferrari was designed in a lab to air on TNT on Saturday afternoons in the golden hours between the completion of yard work and the eating of dinner. Its old-fashioned-ness and its unwillingness to challenge its subgenre make it just as well-suited to a midday distraction, as disposable and meaningless as an acrid puff of exhaust.
If the only Pedro Almodovar film a viewer has seen is the horny plane comedy I’m So Excited, like this viewer has, then one might be surprised that all the Spanish director’s work isn’t similarly adrenalized. In his latest film, Pain and Glory, Almodovar creates a scene where characters with a lot of drug experience discuss the difference between coke and heroin, and that’s close to the dissonance I had watching it. I’m So Excited is a cinematic stimulant, while Pain and Glory is a groggy recollection in a comfy recliner, a film that visualizes the amount of energy required to stand up and do something when the banal pleasures of routine have otherwise cemented a person in place. Contemplative and languid and likely a window into the aging director’s mind, Pain and Glory is a transporting and sensual film about artistic creation and the epitome of the directive to ‘write what you know.’
If Gavin O’Connor’s sports movies had to be compared to the kind of candy Nick Nolte’s lone old man character in Warrior would have in his living room, the strawberry candies with the distinctive wrappers would be it. Hard on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside especially describes Warrior, O’Connor’s best yet still imperfect outing. Taking place in the decidedly unsentimental world of ultimate fighting, Warrior has a level of fraternal, male-oriented weepiness that’s typical of the genre but becomes sharper and more effective by standing in relief to such a testosterone heavy environment.
Peter Farrelly, previously the director of There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, cut his teeth on raunchy comedy and spent 2018 trying to break out into respectability with the Oscar set. He got to give self-righteous speeches at the Golden Globes and other ceremonies with Green Book, a film that has a certain amount of crowd-pleasing familiarity but is blinkered and unimaginative and unempathetic underneath its saccharine surface. The following year, it was Todd Phillips’ turn to make another kind of awards darling with Joker, a film that attempts to mine the Golden Age films of the 70’s for newfound relevance within the confines of the comic book genre. Phillips, best known as the director of The Hangover films and most regrettably recognized as the guy who cast himself as a creep who put his whole mouth on Amy Smart’s feet in Road Trip, is about as successful as Farrelly in their respective efforts. Both made a film that crudely works in the immediate moment it’s being taken in and subsequently crumbles into nothing the further one gets away from it.
Celine Sciamma is known to this viewer as the premier director of the modern coming-of-age film, the latest in a long line of French masters who intuitively understand children and adolescents. Tomboy and Girlhood, written and directed by Sciamma, and Being 17 and My Life as a Zucchini, written by Sciamma, are all raw and powerful depictions of the strong, indescribable feelings coursing through young minds. Perhaps having said all that she can say about growing up, Sciamma moves to adulthood with her period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. If there was any concern that she would struggle to create for a new demographic of characters, it’s almost immediately put to bed. Those raw desires that she’s so skilled with remain, but they’re hidden by their sophisticated adult owners under dense layers of subtlety and suspicion that have to be slowly and deliberately chiseled away. As great as Sciamma’s earlier work is, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is better still, an instant all-timer that will likely live forever on critics’ lists and retrospectives.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Behn Zeitlin’s magical realist environmental allegory set in the Mississippi Delta, brought the director critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination before his 28th birthday, but not unlike his mythical aurochs locked in ice, Zeitlin seems to have spent the proceeding eight years frozen in place. His only release since then, the Peter Pan adaptation Wendy, looks identical to his breakout hit and underperformed critically and commercially. For those who originally dismissed Beasts as a maudlin and exploitative piece of poverty porn, vindication is had, but for those who can see those arguments and still enjoy the film’s many pleasures, there’s disappointment that Zeitlin couldn’t build on a strong, if flawed, debut. Beasts of the Southern Wild has its issues, but the performances and Zeitlin’s zest for the material makes those issues the mere ring around the bathtub instead of the bathtub itself.
James Gray finds the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the feel of Apocalypse Now in his introspective space travel epic Ad Astra. Sailing through the solar system towards Ad Astra’s version of Kurtz, Gray’s techno-futurist vision bounces from unforeseen outcomes to tragic miscalculations, each new stop on the cosmic river providing another instance of space travel and the optimism it represents having decayed into the same brokenness left behind on earth. The film questions what all this is for, and gives a stoic and placid Brad Pitt the opportunity to find an answer. There’s no obelisk of inspiration at the end of Ad Astra, but the destination is worth the trip.
Kenneth Lonergan’s contemplative post-9/11 emotional epic Margaret begins with a statement of purpose. On a busy NYC corner, a bus charges through an intersection, the light changes, and dozens of pedestrians pour into the street. Lives might have ended or been irrevocably changed if one of those people stepped into the street a few seconds earlier, whether through absent-mindedness or jostling or a loss of balance. So much of living on top of each other in cramped quarters fills the average day with heightened stakes that nonetheless become so commonplace, that they blend into the background. The events of Lonergan’s long-delayed film disrupt that equilibrium and expose the precariousness of life to Margaret’s teenage protagonist. Radiating with meaning and dense with rich themes, Margaret never feels overstuffed or under-considered. Its considerable goals are met, making it one of those movies that one wants to discuss for hours after the end credits roll.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.