The X-Men has always been my favorite set of superheroes. This group of mutants endured a tremendous amount of peaks and valleys throughout its inception. X-Men's greatest adaption - outside of the comics - was the 1990's cartoon television series. It was simply incredible. What made it great was severalfold but one of its high points was the Phoenix Saga. That story is so important to the show that it takes up most of season three and it worked because it was a continual series. Trying to repeat what happened in a television series in a two to three hour film is not only dangerous to the brand but also confusing to the audience.
Barry Jenkins’ anticipated follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight keeps the lovingly-appointed close-ups and an immaculate Nicholas Britell score, and adds a period and familial dynamic that both broadens the scope of the film and places an insurmountable antagonist against its characters. Adapted from a James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is plainly from the same director as Moonlight, one of the best films from the last decade and one whose longevity will likely persist in critics’ lists in perpetuity. Where Moonlight focused intensely on its protagonist at different phases of his life, If Beale Street Could Talk splits its focus amongst several characters who, though, they share a common goal, occupy different tactics and spaces and therefore divide the film’s precision into smaller parts. Beale Street carries Jenkins’ unique signature and is a worthy entry into his filmography, but Moonlight looms so large and, formidable as it may be, Beale Street takes on too much to match or exceed its fabled predecessor.
With its title, The Childhood of a Leader places the viewer in a specific frame of reference as they watch a young boy rebel against his parents in the immediate aftermath of WWI. The boy, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is the only child of any import in the film, so he’ll one day turn into the leader of the title, and the Versailles Treaty setting strongly implies that he’s a burgeoning fascist who will one day reign death and destruction upon the earth. Writer/director Brady Corbet effectively starts with the ending and makes his audience watch for every potential brain wrinkling that will turn Prescott into a psychopath, if he isn’t already one when the film begins.
Jennifer Fox goes deep into her past and her psyche for the autobiographical The Tale, a harrowing and disconcerting story of memory and abuse. This is as personal as it gets, as Fox holds nothing back in the depiction of what happened to her, and how she interpreted it at the time and for much of her life after. It nears the unrecommendable category of difficult movies, but it’s also an important examination and rebuttal of so many dismissive arguments regarding the experience of sexual abuse, delving into the psychological labyrinths and counter-intuitive actions a victim can construct and take to live with their experience. Fox’s background is in documentary filmmaking, and The Tale represents a merging of her journalistic know-how and a compelling grasp of intimate storytelling.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.