It was only a matter of time before Scott Z. Burns, the diligent screenwriter behind deeply-researched thrillers like Contagion and The Informant, would make his version of Spotlight or All the Presidents Men. Burns makes his blow-by-blow journalistic recreation about one of the last decade’s great works of investigation with The Report, a volcanically angry dedication to the years of lonely work that went into determining who, why, and how the CIA tortured detainees in the time directly after 9/11. This is a bulletproof film that, in an ideal world, would be a required civic lesson for all US citizens. Not only has it gone essentially unchallenged and praised by those most in the know, with the exception of the CIA war criminals and flacks it relentlessly indicts, but, like Contagion, Burns doesn’t let the drier, technical aspects of the script slow down a well-paced and propulsive film. The American people seem to have long forgotten about the crimes of the early 21st century, but The Report ensures that a chronicle of one of the most egregious lives on.
Wes Anderson meets Downfall in Jojo Rabbit, a film that, to its credit, I’m still turning over long after I’ve seen it. Something rankles in Taika Waititi’s self-described anti-hate satire about a young German boy who can’t make himself into the perfect Nazi soldier he aspires to be. The balls required to make a film about a member of the Hitler Youth who has Hitler himself as an imaginary friend are considerable, but they shrivel up when confronted with a tone that can’t decide on stakes or jokes and in turn undercuts both. Armando Ianucci provided Waititi the way forward with his miraculous comedy The Death of Stalin, but Soviet war crimes have a harder time translating to the Third Reich.
There is something so strange and off-putting about the Hasidic community in New York. In the midst of a multicultural metropolis, a cloistered, repressive, and conformist group remains dedicated to staying in a bygone era of vaccine-preventable disease and women informally barred from the workplace. The Amish just come off differently, probably because it makes more sense to be insular in a rural community. The oddness of the Hasidim is on display in Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Menashe, a film about a man on the outside of his community who wants to return to full status. Though Menashe doesn’t sell why that would be the best option for him, it does provide an opportunity for a peek inside a closed-off world.
It’s easy to forget that, despite their Scandinavian progressivism, Denmark has been at war in Afghanistan for almost the entirety of the 21st century. This particular kind of warfare, where the combatants are mixed in with civilians, seems especially hard to square with a generous welfare state that sees all people, including Afghanis, as worthy of dignity and support. As depicted in Tobias Lindholm’s A War, this is an admirable and perhaps impossible way to wage war. His thorny moral quandary forces the viewer to question their own assumptions and biases, and is also one of the best films made about the war in Afghanistan.
Horror maestro Mike Flanagan finds himself caught between two cultural titans in Doctor Sleep. Stephen King wrote the book as a sequel to The Shining, the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of which King famously hated. Flanagan uses the book material and the movie aesthetic to bridge the gap between the two, making a film with plenty of King’s habits while paying homage to Kubrick. The latter works because Kubrick was a singular genius and even the slightest of visual nods to his films give considerable oomph. The former works… less well. The second slavish recreation of The Shining in as many years after Ready Player One, Doctor Sleep provides an imperfect follow-up that doesn’t sell its necessity as a sequel, though it has plenty of its own joys and thrills.
Robert Eggers’ staggering debut The Witch took the worst fears of its Puritan protagonists and made them real. His follow-up, The Lighthouse, does the same with the legends and superstitions of 19th century seamen, but to lesser effect. Eggers’ talents for immersion remain as potent as ever, relying on the lighting implements of the time as well as the speech patterns and vocabulary of a particular subset of people. With its addition of a palpable foulness, The Lighthouse doesn’t prompt a lean-in like The Witch did. This is an environment worth running from. One can only be so immersed before rebellion sets in.
It doesn’t take any great cultural perception to call James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari a movie for dads, but it satisfies too many stereotypical expectations to not make mention of it. This is a film about cars and motor racing. It’s set in the 60’s, but the Mad Men, Americana part of it that’s far away from the counter-culture. Plenty of recognizable names show up for those that have read the Wall Street Journal for several decades, and it has an unthinking patriotism that equates corporate success with national success. Ford v Ferrari was designed in a lab to air on TNT on Saturday afternoons in the golden hours between the completion of yard work and the eating of dinner. Its old-fashioned-ness and its unwillingness to challenge its subgenre make it just as well-suited to a midday distraction, as disposable and meaningless as an acrid puff of exhaust.
If the only Pedro Almodovar film a viewer has seen is the horny plane comedy I’m So Excited, like this viewer has, then one might be surprised that all the Spanish director’s work isn’t similarly adrenalized. In his latest film, Pain and Glory, Almodovar creates a scene where characters with a lot of drug experience discuss the difference between coke and heroin, and that’s close to the dissonance I had watching it. I’m So Excited is a cinematic stimulant, while Pain and Glory is a groggy recollection in a comfy recliner, a film that visualizes the amount of energy required to stand up and do something when the banal pleasures of routine have otherwise cemented a person in place. Contemplative and languid and likely a window into the aging director’s mind, Pain and Glory is a transporting and sensual film about artistic creation and the epitome of the directive to ‘write what you know.’
If Gavin O’Connor’s sports movies had to be compared to the kind of candy Nick Nolte’s lone old man character in Warrior would have in his living room, the strawberry candies with the distinctive wrappers would be it. Hard on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside especially describes Warrior, O’Connor’s best yet still imperfect outing. Taking place in the decidedly unsentimental world of ultimate fighting, Warrior has a level of fraternal, male-oriented weepiness that’s typical of the genre but becomes sharper and more effective by standing in relief to such a testosterone heavy environment.
Peter Farrelly, previously the director of There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, cut his teeth on raunchy comedy and spent 2018 trying to break out into respectability with the Oscar set. He got to give self-righteous speeches at the Golden Globes and other ceremonies with Green Book, a film that has a certain amount of crowd-pleasing familiarity but is blinkered and unimaginative and unempathetic underneath its saccharine surface. The following year, it was Todd Phillips’ turn to make another kind of awards darling with Joker, a film that attempts to mine the Golden Age films of the 70’s for newfound relevance within the confines of the comic book genre. Phillips, best known as the director of The Hangover films and most regrettably recognized as the guy who cast himself as a creep who put his whole mouth on Amy Smart’s feet in Road Trip, is about as successful as Farrelly in their respective efforts. Both made a film that crudely works in the immediate moment it’s being taken in and subsequently crumbles into nothing the further one gets away from it.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.