Darren Aronofsky has put some bonkers imagery onscreen over the course of his career, but it’s never weird for the sake of weird. Every refrigerator monster is on purpose and in service of the hapless characters running through Aronofsky’s wringer. His seventh film, mother! (hereafter referred to as Mother for the sake of simplicity), is the first where that might not be the case. A naked allegory for biblical history, Mother doesn’t have characters so much as it has symbols. Even Aronofsky’s tackling of the story of the flood in Noah was still grounded in the titular patriarch and his family. Mother is no less powerful and memorable than a film like The Fountain or Black Swan, but it’s the most elemental in the unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings it dredges up. However, what it lacks in characters who exist as individuals, it more than compensates in its level of bonkers, as this is the closest to a filmed nightmare that I’ve ever seen. Mother is so visceral and so potent that its allowed some amount of shirking in the character department.
The wave of 80’s nostalgia reaches its height with It, an adaptation of Stephen King’s famous clown-phobic novel. Written in 1986 and originally set in the equally nostalgia-laden 50’s, It gets brought into the rosy decade currently obsessing modern audiences. The 50’s and the 80’s, marked by domestic calm in the aftermath of disruptive grand events, are perfect representations of ugliness hiding beneath the surface, an ugliness made manifest by King’s iconic Pennywise the Dancing Clown, brought to campy life by Tim Curry in the 1990 TV miniseries and now by an eccentric and disconcerting Bill Skarsgard. In director Andy Muschietti’s vision, It becomes a distillation of horror filmmaking intruding onto a sun-dappled summer. He captures the gauzy childhood adventures of bikes and swimming holes and bully evasion alongside a judicious use of jump scares/edits, musical stings, sped-up motion, and other tried-and-true techniques guaranteed to get the heart racing. The tremendously-successful film is a true crowd-pleaser, earning scares as well as laughs even as it seriously endangers the future earnings of clown college graduates.
Kathryn Bigelow’s partnership with writer Mark Boal hits a bump with Detroit. The two have produced exceptional work with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but Detroit lacks the former’s psychological specificity and the latter’s ability to coherently adapt an unfolding story. Detroit certainly contains Bigelow’s flair for generating unbearable levels of tension. However, in choosing to focus on what it focuses on, it becomes didactic in a way that her and Boal’s recent works studiously avoid. It also is a story of racism and police abuse that feels unnecessary when the contemporary equivalent can be easily found fifty years after the events of the film. Zero Dark Thirty contained scenes of actual torture, but it was impossible to call it torture porn. Detroit, as well made as it is, has a hard time shaking that label.
Americans have long looked west for rejuvenation and reinvention, trampling others that were already there in search of their own interests. Despite all the trappings of modernity in Matt Spicer’s exceptional debut, Ingrid Goes West is a tale that could be easily adapted to any US period of the last few hundred years. This is the story of the coward Robert Ford, of Oklahoma homesteaders, of the ancestors of those homesteaders on their way to California during the Great Depression. Aubrey Plaza’s titular protagonist is no one’s idea of a frontierswoman, as she chooses to use her dwindling funds for beer instead of toilet paper and is never shown eating something that wasn’t hastily prepared for her and pushed out a drive-thru, but she still traverses the country and into an unknown and tenuous future, equipped with her stake and her online profile. Both a Western without the spurs and a satire without much exaggeration, Spicer joins the group of 2017 debut directors, already populated with the likes Jordan Peele and Julia Ducournau, who have wildly succeeded in their first outings.
Exactly no one believed that prolific director Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from filmmaking would stick. Soderbergh took a few years to dabble in television, with exceptional results, and he finally returns to the big screen with Logan Lucky. His latest revisits the grand heists of Ocean’s 11, replacing the gawdy glitz of Las Vegas with the drawls of West Virginia. Soderbergh roars back to life as surely as the NASCAR vehicles featured in a film that retains the charm and humor of his other caper films while adding levels of earned sentimentality that his work has often been too cool to engage with.
Taylor Sheridan has made his name as the writer behind crackling Southwestern thrillers like Sicario and Hell and High Water. After this productive period, he returns behind the camera for Wind River, a film far from the desert but as bleak as those landscapes are dry. There are striking similarities between all three, like culture clashes, communities in decline, and a female outsider butting up against entrenched and male-dominated systems, but why change what’s been working? Sheridan maintains his above-average credentials with Wind River, another quality entry in the emerging genre of the contemporary wilderness Western kicked off by No Country For Old Men.
Having directed the groundbreaking action flick John Wick together in 2014, stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch parted ways three years later. With each releasing their own films in 2017, Stahelski and Leitch invited a friendly contest between them. Stahelski’s John Wick sequel was more of the same, stylish but drained of the emotional throughline that made the original’s high body count somewhat meaningful instead of outright exhausting. With Atomic Blonde, Leitch appears to be uninterested in repeating himself outside of capturing more visceral, bone-crunching action. His film trades the criminal underworld for Cold War espionage, casts a far-better actor in the lead, and retains a passable amount of resonance, all combining to demonstrate that he’s the more talented director of the two.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.