Laika Studios suffered its biggest failure with Missing Link, an unjust treatment by the moviegoing public for a group of true artisans. The stop-motion animators, increasingly backed up by the largesse of CEO Travis Knight’s father and Nike founder Phil Knight, consistently make beautiful creations and complex stories for the family. Missing Link is no exception, it currently reigns as the biggest box office animated bust of all time. Hopefully, Laika can withstand this blow, because in a sea of CGI, no one else makes movies like they do. Missing Link isn’t up to the standard Laika has set by previous greats and personal favorites Paranorman and Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s still plenty here to warrant success instead of historical failure.
One of the most indelible images from Mad Men occurred in an episode where Don Draper takes new wife Megan to try out a Howard Johnson chain in upstate New York. He raves about the sherbet, and a serving is brought to Megan in all its unnatural orange glory. The color of the dessert leaps off the screen, though its brightness doesn’t stop Megan from discarding it after a single, disagreeable bite. Those colors are all over a film that may well have inspired Mad Men, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. In its 1950’s setting of wealthy Connecticut, the cars are sparkling pastels, the clothes pop with brightness, and the autumn leaves serve as a tourist advertisement, but all the lives contained within are allowed none of this vibrancy. Haynes’ film is both luxurious and repressed, a clenched fist wrapped in silk that skewers northern self-congratulatory liberalism and looks incredible doing it.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out places the buzzed-about director in a difficult place. The critical and commercial dominance of his debut feature contained novel social commentary atop its horror bone fides, while also having a comedic subplot that connected Peele to his sketch background and spread out the film’s tension. Get Out’s success sets up Us for huge expectations, not just for an excellent film but one that has something important to say. Us, however, is hampered by an impenetrable mythology and a comedic tone that worked better in Get Out because it was separated from the high stakes events of the main plot. There’s a great deal to appreciate here in Peele’s second film, but if his two directing gigs were doppelgangers, Us is the one relegated to the underground.
Lulu Wang’s first film, the underseen and barely released Posthumous, reads like a standard indie romance about two beautiful white people in Berlin. It’s probably fine, but whether or not it could only have been made by Wang is an open question. The Farewell, on the other hand, adapts a story from her own life that’s specific to her and her family, and fills it with a familiarity and an honesty in spite of the central incident revolving around a lie. With a healthy release schedule for a heavily subtitled film and a family-friendly PG rating, The Farewell is something of a throwback, a critically acclaimed tearjerker with a healthy amount of laughs that can be recommended to everyone from 10 to 100. By putting a realized version of her life onscreen, Wang emerges as one 2019’s most accomplished filmmakers and one of cinema’s most anticipated voices.
Adapted from a young adult novel and directed by George Tillman Jr and his penchant for black-themed prestige pictures, The Hate U Give is aiming to be a Boyz N the Hood for a new generation, specifically the part of Boyz that featured Laurence Fishburne holding court on an Inglewood street corner about the invisible forces behind the neighborhood’s plight. The film wants to be about as much as possible, from code-switching to police brutality, and often when political box-checking takes over a film, it’s the characters that go first. However, in most cases, Tillman Jr never loses sight of his cast and is able to place sociological forces alongside them instead of using those forces to push characters forward. Featuring a star-making performance from Amandla Stenberg and a dad portrayal that rivals Fishburne’s Furious Styles, The Hate U Give serves up the sugar of a grounded and affecting story and the medicine of a reflection about the worlds that black and white teens have to grow up in.
Twenty-plus movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to rely less on the origin stories that fans have long been exhausted by. However, as the last ten years of superhero flicks gives way to the next hundred, new characters must be introduced, at least before CGI de-aging allows actors to portray superheroes well into their 70’s and Disney’s monopolistic growth captures the whole of Hollywood. Captain Marvel, the first female-led MCU film after twenty prior entries, is also the first origin story since the previous year’s critical and commercial juggernaut Black Panther. With that kind of immediate predecessor, Captain Marvel has very big shoes to fill. However, while the character herself might be the most powerful in the franchise, the film about her struggles to find a new way into a pattern that kids raised on Iron Man could now recite in their sleep.
I remember watching Pamela Anderson’s Comedy Central roast and marveling that anyone could spend a second with Courtney Love, Anderson’s ally on the dais. Love was obnoxious and erratic and disruptive, a drug-addled mess who could have projectile vomited or stripped naked at any moment and made it seem like the natural conclusion to her evening. Elisabeth Moss embodies that kind of energy in Her Smell, a five-chapter story of a destructive rocker and the people she drives away with her instability. Director Alex Ross Perry builds atop his quieter psychodramas for a film that puts the viewer square in the chaos created in his lead character’s wake, and he and Moss pull off the miracle of letting the character hang onto some hope of a turnaround. It’s Perry best work yet, and more evidence that Moss is one of the best actors of her generation. If she can make a Courtney Love facsimile redeemable, she can do anything.
Paul Feig’s mastery of the female-focused comedy (minus some ghost-busting) continues with A Simple Favor, a tremendously entertaining mystery satire that proves how comfortable Feig is across genres. His successful films have all been funny, but they capably operate within the confines of buddy cop or spy movies. A Simple Favor, based on a page turner one could imagine flipping through on a beach, is at root a credible whodunit, and Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer build on the book’s foundation with snappy dialogue and the extra mustard the cast puts on those lines. This is a return to form for Feig and a career best from co-star Blake Lively. If people still had cable, A Simple Favor is the kind of film that would suck away afternoons after a bout of random channel surfing.
My Star Trek knowledge extends as far as the 21st century reboots and some snippets of The Next Generation from childhood. Whoopi Goldberg was a psychic bartender, or something. From that limited perspective, I’ve still absorbed the default difference between the franchise and its contemporary, Star Wars, where the former is supposed to be about exploration and diplomacy while the latter is grand military heroics pitched to the broadest possible audience. The modern Star Trek movies have elbowed their way into Star Wars territory, and indeed, likely final chapter Star Trek Beyond skips over the workaday missions of the USS Enterprise in an early montage meant to convey boredom and mental exhaustion. This particular incarnation only stops for the big confrontations, a choice that might anger Trekkies but, with a well-meshed cast and a plot that knows how to use them, Star Trek Beyond becomes the rare third chapter of trilogy that surpasses its predecessors. Freed from the original’s need to clumsily unite various timelines of Star Trek lore and the sequel’s misplaced desire to replicate decades-old characters, Justin Lin’s sci-fi actioner is as fun as big-budget filmmaking gets.
Christian Petzold’s recent work has dramatized difficult periods of 20th century German history. Barbara followed a woman under close surveillance by East Germany’s Stasi secret police, while the masterful Phoenix placed the psychological trauma of a Holocaust survivor amidst a ruined Berlin in the war’s immediate aftermath. In Petzold’s latest work, Transit, he returns to the fertile ground of 20th century upheaval and panic by adapting a novel set in a France that’s on the brink of total domination by the Nazi war machine, but, perhaps tired of period detail, the German director places the film’s events in a contemporary setting. Characters aren’t checking the Nazi’s progress on their smart phones, but there are plenty of modern signposts and presumptions that push the viewer out of the comfort zone that usually exists in historical dramas. The past becomes the present in Transit, a chilling morality tale that further cements Petzold as the prime cinematic chronicler of the moral dilemmas that arise when the safeguards of society are not what they once were, a talent that makes Transit a vital film for this moment.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.