Other People shows the viewer the ending at its beginning. This semi-autobiographical debut for writer/director Chris Kelly of a family and their cancer-afflicted mother isn't going to be about triumphing over adversity; it's going to feature the mother's slow decline and ultimate death, surrounded by her husband and three adult children. Thwarting this depressing intro is the kind of detail so absurd that it must be true. While the surviving family sobs over their minutes-dead matriarch, an old friend of the mom leaves a message on the nearby answering machine, obliviously checking in while she places a drive-thru food order. Other People repeatedly finds the humor in the darkest of scenarios, while still managing to be genuine and raw about what the characters are experiencing. What must have been a purgative experience for Kelly, whose own mother died from cancer in 2009, is also a complete experience for the viewer, as the film achieves an honest balance between comedy and drama.
Denzel Washington might be the greatest actor of all time, per the similarly named podcast, and Fences doesn't detract from that lofty claim. As a director, though, he's closer to earth. Adapted from an August Wilson play, the Denzel-directed film might as well be a play. It rarely ventures out from the 1950's Pittsburgh home its central family lives in, and the big and melodramatic roles are better suited for the stage. Cinematically, Fences isn't blowing anyone away, leaving the performances and the writing. The latter can be on-the-nose and occasionally wields a big sledgehammer, but otherwise feels true and lived-in. The former is what Fences brings most to the table, as this is an acting feast. Starring Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom have played their characters on Broadway long before the film's production, are both chewing up scenery and finding subtlety in an unsubtle drama.
An old-fashioned crowd pleaser that combines the Space Race with overcoming racial discrimination, Hidden Figures is a film that works in spite of the many reminiscent films that would shift focus from the discriminated to the observers of discrimination. There are no noble sufferers here, and no white characters that learn lessons at a black person's expense. Hidden Figures is dedicated to the lives of three women, each of which had a level of talent and a self-confidence that would not be denied by something as self-evidently silly as segregated bathrooms. Neither maudlin nor corny, Ted Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder tell a vastly undertold story with dignity, humor, and panache.
Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash is superficially as distant as it could get from Danny Boyle's Sunshine, but they both share a structural problem. The former is about an Italian vacation and the latter is about a last-ditch space expedition, but each are near-perfect films until a bout of violence is introduced and their perfection ebbs. The feeling of a masterpiece slipping away always hurts, but with A Bigger Splash, at least what comes before the slide is brilliant and memorable. Adapted from an earlier Italian film spoken in Italian, this Italian film spoken in English contains the boisterousness of the country's great directors and the beautifully-sketched characters of a director like Richard Linklater.
Jackie Kennedy gets the biopic treatment in Pablo Larrain's fascinating film Jackie, but the film wisely focuses only on the weeks after her husband was assassinated. As she (Natalie Portman) gives an interview to a reporter (Billy Crudup), discussing the seismic event and how she's dealing with the aftermath, Larrain flashes back to moments scattered throughout JFK's presidency, sketching out the first lady's philosophy and her ultimate goal of mythologizing her husband's memory. Larrain and his editor Sebastian Sepulveda weave the film's varied time periods together, and include a tense and visceral assassination scene, punctuated with gruesome sound design, that loses nothing from the viewer knowing how it ends. Anchored by a brilliant script by Noah Oppenheim and Portman's all-encompassing performance, Jackie is as multi-faceted as its protagonist, finding each of her personas and only catching a fleeting glimpse of her true one.
In a disappointing development, the controversy surrounding the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters is far more interesting than the film itself. The trolls of the Internet commentariat came out for this one, savaging the marketing campaign and getting personal with the stars on Twitter. None of this level of anger was evinced by the remakes of Total Recall or Robocop, two other beloved properties of Gen X childhoods repackaged by cannibalistic studios, leaving the gender-flipping of the cast as the obvious reason for the rage. Much to the disappointment of those for whom Pepe is only known as an off-brand tequila, Paul Feig, a director with Bridesmaids and Spy in his win column, spits out a dud here. 2016 was a great year for frustrated misogynists and their feelings of marginalization for several reasons, and one of them was that they got to tell everyone 'I told ya so' about Ghostbusters, a film whose problems are too deep for any foursome of actors, male or female, to solve.
Early in Kenneth Lonergan’s latest opus, Manchester By the Sea, tortured protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shown in happier times, fishing with his young nephew Patrick and his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). While Joe steers, Lee teaches Patrick how to hold the line and what to do if he gets a bite. Lee describes the moment of catching a fish as pure happiness, but Lonergan withholds an image of this moment, because this isn’t that kind of film. There are pure emotions in Lonergan’s shattering film, but happiness isn’t one of them. The kind of film that sits on one’s chest long after the end credits roll, Manchester By the Sea is nigh-unrecommendable for any but the emotionally prepared. Its earnest and successful attempts at humor only serve to make the grief stand out that much more in relief. For those willing to tough it out through a veil of tears, the reward is one of 2016’s very best films, a slice of life drama that is familiar with despair but unwilling to wallow in it, that knows what misery is but is not miserable.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, there’s a conceited race of gold-skinned humanoids called the Sovereign. Led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), they take every opportunity to remind their audience that they are genetically perfect, spawned from millenia of biochemical knowledge to be the purest and most efficient beings in the galaxy. Against the sloppy and crude heroes of the title, the Sovereign provide a snobs-vs-slobs dynamic that perfectly sets this Marvel property as the antidote to the empty philosophy and self-seriousness that DC is presently trafficking in. False pomp and circumstance is lampooned throughout, both with the Sovereign and with the overheated exclamations of a would-be warlord by the name of Taserface (Chris Sullivan). In the sequel to the Guardians of the Galaxy’s brash introduction, Marvel Studios and director James Gunn continues to demonstrate that a hefty dose of levity is more endearing than all the historical baggage from the most iconic comic book characters. What viewer would prefer a scowling armor-clad billionaire or a dour sky god to the adorable cluelessness of a sentient plant or the guileless honesty of a tattooed madman?
The always-delightful Kung Fu Panda series doesn't surprise in its third entry but it remains as watchable as ever. Like the titular bear nestled in a bamboo forest, Kung Fu Panda 3 sits comfortably between its two earlier films in the franchise, not as affecting as the first sequel but more confident than the original. With Jennifer Yuh Nelson back at the helm, along with co-director Alessandro Carloni, the filmmaking has continued to improve, this time incorporating a mystical element that takes nothing away from the balletic martial arts. However, mainstay screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger seem to have gotten too comfortable, pushing out a script that feels identical to so many other animated films with less accomplished pedigrees. Dreamworks Animation is supposed to polish up this kind of shorthand, and they've let it slip into what is otherwise an engaging story.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.