John Curran’s Chappaquidick considers the political figure as a fundamentally weak individual. For all the nobility of public service, the job of an elected official is to work for the constant approval of one’s constituents, a transaction that, uncharitably framed, could be described as neediness, and Curran’s film frames its protagonist as a particularly needy individual. The Ted Kennedy of Chappaquidick is stuck in the martyred shadow of his brothers, and suspects that he’s the Kennedy least capable to fulfill his dictatorial father’s dreams of greatness. So much of the Chappaquidick incident took place behind closed doors, so the film inevitably fills in gaps with dramatic license, but it feels like it’s on the firmest ground when it’s considering the trade-offs and compromises that public life requires, up to and including the distortion of the final moments of a woman’s life to preserve a man’s career.
Acclaimed director Jacques Audiard turns his eyes to the Old West in his first English-language film, The Sisters Brothers. Audiard’s film becomes immediately noteworthy by the very long list of production companies that precede the opening frames, a testament to how difficult it’s getting to make a mid-budget film, even one that includes a main cast of four actors in their creative primes. Getting those dozens of companies on the project ultimately did the Sisters Brothers few favors, as it was ignored by audiences and forgotten by critics. Audiard has been at the helm of great films in his native France, but something’s missing in this particular corner of the frontier.
For his feature debut, Jeremiah Zagar embodies the independent cinema tradition of cribbing from Terence Malick, but with minority protagonists. Zagar’s film about a multi-racial family of five in upstate New York immediately evokes the Waco portions of Malick’s Tree of Life with its central family of three rambunctious boys, a gentle mother (Sheila Vand), and an unpredictable father (Raul Castillo). This strategy worked for David Gordon Green’s George Washington and it may very well work with Zagar, because his We the Animals is the work of a deep and promising filmmaker.
There are chilling, nigh-unspeakable horror films like Rosemary’s Baby or Raw or Hereditary that worm into one’s psyche and push the limits of being able to sit in a seat, while there are others that bolt the viewer to the chair in perfectly-calibrated suspense i.e. Alien and The Thing. A Quiet Place is more indebted to the latter example, a helluva thrill ride that doesn’t linger as long as the former type. John Krasinski’s surprise hit dedicates itself to building the most crowd-pleasing film possible within the confines of its genre and its high-concept premise. It efficiently gets in and gets out, barely leaving a mark, but that ephemerality doesn’t prevent A Quiet Place from being tremendously entertaining.
If the Great Man theory of history had to be applied to the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs, some nameless, intrepid human had to be the first one to extend their hand to some nameless, curious, probably low-testosterone wolf. Such a pivotal, nonexistent moment gets adapted into Albert Hughes’ Alpha, a deft and effective picture of survival left to languish in the dregs of summer. Hughes brings a mythic sweep to a film that many directors hackier than him would have contentedly left as a marginally grittier Incredible Journey or an equally corny 10,000 BC. From its opening sequence to its rousing ending, Alpha emerges as one of 2018’s biggest surprises.
For the latest in micro-budget workarounds, the world turns to Searching, a kidnap thriller with the gimmick that all of its events take place through a webcam or on a screen. For his debut feature, director Aneesh Chaganty gives himself a high degree of difficulty, ensuring that his film will not exactly be the most cinematic to grace theater screens. However, thanks to the frayed-nerve desperation of star John Cho and a propulsive script, Searching transcends its technologically-imposed limitations to tell a classic story of a father and daughter drifting apart long before the dramatic events of the film. The germ of Chaganty’s film would work in a pre-smartphone era, though the gimmick would have to be reconsidered.
Terrence Malick’s mythic, ethereal films always find the intimate and the internal amongst the swirl of larger events, but in To the Wonder, there is no larger event beyond an unconvincing romance. Malick’s style lives on the razor’s edge between profundity and parody, and it’s often the grander stakes of colonial Virginia or the Pacific WWII theater that keeps his characters and their breathy inner monologues from becoming tiresome. Without those stakes or any epic sweep to speak of, To the Wonder’s in trouble.
The ‘useless men’ subgenre, best exemplified recently by Elle or Widows, gets more company with Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, a film whose punny title is perfect for its setting. Set in a ‘breastaurant’ that’s even more grimy and pathetic than the average Hooters, Support the Girls works as a line that the patrons of the central establishment would chuckle at and as a mantra for its harried but dedicated manager, beset on all sides by the tyrannies of the aforementioned useless men she comes into contact with. Bujalski, best known as an early adopter of mumblecore indie cinema, instills far more life into his latest film than one would expect from a mumblecore devotee, and while that genre has its moments, the success of Support the Girls suggests that he might be better off making films about energetic women instead of introspective men.
As the television landscape gets more segmented and diffuse, how can any one person manage to keep up? The answer is that they can't, as even the dwindling number of professional critics lament not being able to spend time on a series that's slow to get going. It's not that great shows don't exist, but it's both hard to find them or to go out on a limb with something new when all of King of the Hill just got added to Hulu, for example. Nevertheless, the best television of 2018 represents the increased diversity and cinematic daring that so many avenues for storytelling provides. Certain shows are always going to get overlooked (I continue to fall behind on Better Call Saul and anything on Showtime or Starz is a black hole, to say nothing of oddball streaming shows like Maniac or Homecoming), but these twenty series keep the Golden Age of Television moving into the future.
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Spike Lee teaches film at NYU when he’s not making movies, and so many of the prolific director’s films can feel like he’s taking the audience to school. At his most natural, like in a biopic of known lecture-giver Malcolm X, Lee merges the personal and the political with minimal effort, but he’s not always so successful. BlacKkKlansman finds Lee at his most didactic, a deadly trait when the film also has the problem of being muddled in its characterization and its message. However, Lee is still Lee, capable of exuding joyous cool even as he’s pointing fingers in audience’s faces. The nuggets of greatness that the film contains are worth spending several minutes in Race and Culture 101.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.