Everyone’s favorite intergalactic trophy hunter, the Predator, shouldn’t be a difficult creature to build a movie around, but there’s somehow only been a single strong film about one of them and a string of mediocre follow-ups. Shane Black continues this tradition with The Predator, yet another entry that can’t measure up to the original. Having previously spent time in the jungle, the inner city, and a planetary game reserve, Black considers where the series hasn’t been yet and settles on suburbia, an environment that allows him and his impressive cast to hunt and be hunted on unimpressive grounds. The Predator doesn’t need to be bursting with ideas as the root premise is so simple, but this film lacks anything novel and the ideas it does have are terrible.
DC takes a big swing at Marvel with Aquaman by throwing everything possible at them in one tsunami of spectacle. The grandiosity of a shark vs giant crab clash of thousands, interrupted by no less than a leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, exists alongside a fight for a fantastical throne, a revenge quest, a brief sojourn into an undersea horror flick, and a surprisingly earnest romance between a lighthouse keeper and an ocean queen played by Nicole Kidman. Director James Wan goes for the gusto in Aquaman, providing the movie equivalent of a joke dense half-hour sitcom: if you don’t like one massive setpiece, wait a few minutes for the next one.
Adam McKay’s semi-comedic plumbing of the depths of the 2000’s continues with Vice, a biopic about Dick Cheney that, while it spans his entire adult life, wouldn’t exist without the pinnacle of Cheney’s career at the beginning of the 21st century. Like McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, the writer/director employs diversionary sketches and meta fourth-wall breakages to tell his story, but the primary difference between Vice and The Big Short is a lack of interest in explanation. Scenes of The Big Short were given over to the inner workings of the arcane financial instruments that nearly destroyed the global economy. There weren’t villains as much as there were systems erected by large groups of humans who were less malevolent and more short-sighted and irrationally optimistic. Vice, on the other hand, has villains, none moreso than the man at its center, and it has little interest in finding a way into his actions beyond a lust for power and control. McKay also makes the mistake of not watching any of the most successful biopics from the last decade or so, films that took a single episode from a prominent person’s life and adapted that as opposed to clumsily cramming decades of experiences into a couple hours. In both The Big Short and his interviews surrounding the film, McKay was able to communicate that he understood a root cause of the financial crisis. Vice doesn’t have that feeling about Cheney or about political corruption in general, subbing out genuine curiosity for that hilarious time the vice president shot a hunting buddy in the face.
Skateboarding experienced a cinematic moment in 2018, as three movies that heavily featured the sport and the ‘wayward’ teens who engage in it were released within months of each other. The nonfiction one, Minding the Gap, was universally recognized as the best of the three, the other two being Mid90’s and Skate Kitchen. Bing Liu’s debut documentary, sprung from his compulsion to shoot skate videos of himself and his friends from his teenage years, starts as a carefree exploration of several young men as they tear around Rockford, IL, but as Liu identifies the unspoken similarities in his and fellow principals Keire’s and Zack’s lives, the film escapes the gravity of their degraded post-industrial town and turns into something profound.
The second half of the cinematic 2010’s has been marked by backlash against more diverse storytelling, especially when women star in franchise reboots. Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and the Ocean’s movies all experienced resentment against a shift away from white male protagonists. On the one hand, the trifling man-babies who complain about something so insignificant should be ignored at all costs. On the other hand, they can be wholly marginalized by telling new stories, a practice that allows studios to find unique voices from underrepresented backgrounds and create new properties that future generations of braindead executives can strip-mine for content. Disney now contains such vast holdings that they can recycle comic book content indefinitely and shunt riskier (i.e. not based on preexisting properties) projects into other storied divisions like Disney Animation, home of the exceptional Moana. Looking for innovation from a studio that’s been adapting fairy tales for almost a century would seem a fool’s errand, but Disney’s reach means it can attract great minds like the film’s composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and funnel his work through veteran directors like Disney mainstays Ron Clements and John Musker. Moana’s considerable pedigree, its novelty as a tale set amongst Polynesian villagers, and its absence of princess-related baggage makes it into one of the best animated features in Disney’s long history.
As far as physical human accomplishments go, the climbing of El Capitan, Yosemite Park’s 3000-foot monolith, without the aid of ropes or hooks or anything beyond calloused fingers is considerable. The act signifies a kind of schoolyard one-upmanship when the peak of Everest is clogged with tourists who risk death, not so much from climbing the mountain but from freezing in long lines as they wait to take their picture at the top. Climber Alex Honnold literally takes his life into his own hands as he thumbs his nose at these poseur-adventurers, and, in an incredible feat of filmmaking, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are right there with him as claws his way to the top. Free Solo chronicles the how of this outlandish feat in spectacular, vertigo-inducing fashion, but it also captures the why. The camera is not only in Honnold’s face during his climb, but it also interrogates the specific kind of person who would do something like this, refusing to be satisfied with stock ‘because it’s there’ shorthand.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.