This viewer has not clicked with the films of David Lowery. His Terence Malick tribute Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was solid, but Pete’s Dragon felt like a missed opportunity and A Ghost Story was too abstract and indulgent for my tastes. The critical consensus on Lowery as an up-and-coming filmmaker keeps pushing me to give him one more chance, and it finally pays off in The Old Man and the Gun, a geriatric robbery drama that doubles, supposedly, as Robert Redford’s final film role. Whether Redford’s retirement sticks or not, what’s true is that Lowery hits with an elegiac swan song for his star and a film that would be a worthy end to a long and iconic career.
Yorgos Lanthimos makes films that only he could make, partly due to the strange rules that he impresses on the worlds that he creates. Whether those worlds are the restricted compound of Dogtooth or the dystopian anti-romance police state of The Lobster, their inherent absurdity doesn’t break the films because the characters within strenuously abide by the rules. Throughout history, few environments had as restricting, nonsensical, and arbitrary rules as a European royal court, making one a perfect fit for Lanthimos. In The Favourite, the Greek director, born in the birthplace of democracy, goes to the eighteenth century English monarchy for an outrageous chamber drama to end all chamber dramas. How can a future wannabe Best Costume Oscar winner dare to pretend that royals and their courtesans had dignity and gravitas when Lanthimos frames them as coddled by legions of servants as they steer the ship of state based on which minister or hanger-on is making the best jokes?
Ethan Hawke has been quietly tearing up screens as a master of the one-for-them, one-for-me method of career building. I say quietly because his ones-for-them are disposable trash too insubstantial to generate the kind of derision someone like Nicolas Cage gets while his ones-for-me are tiny craft projects that no one sees but critics and cinephiles. Within this framework, the star of Born to Be Blue and Regression, of The Magnificent Seven and First Reformed, is operating at the highest level of his career, playing parts in both the best and worst movies of any given year. Hawke’s 2018 was especially superlative between his titanic role in First Reformed and his directing of Blaze, a biopic of a little-known outlaw country singer. Hawke reinvents a much-derided subgenre with his handling of Foley’s life, one that lacks the major milestones that operate as millstones around adaptations of more famous musicians’ lives. That Blaze can communicate who its subject was while also resisting genre tropes, finding universality in the life of a gifted man, and be a stunningly beautiful piece of art is a rarity and one more piece of evidence in the continued, idiosyncratic brilliance of the film’s director.
Yann Demange’s ’71 remains one of the decade’s best action thrillers, but the French director has a difficult time transferring that expertise from Troubles-era Northern Ireland to crack-era Detroit in White Boy Rick. As an adaptation of the life of Rick Wershe Jr (Richie Merritt), the youngest FBI informant ever, White Boy Rick only scratches the surface of its decaying urban environment. The film includes scenes of Rick and his friends getting into teenage hijinks, but because it’s set in Detroit, that means bounding through abandoned factories and stumbling onto rats’ nests. What does that kind of industrial dystopia do to an American living in the middle of the evidence of the lie of the American Dream? For that matter, Rick and his family seem to be the only white people left in Detroit, a detail the film doesn’t examine. Why did the Wershe’s stay when all the other white people left? Is this story only notable because Wershe is white?
In its fourth incarnation, A Star is Born puts Lady Gaga and her thin acting career in direct comparison to the icons who have previously played the role. She has to tread ground where actors like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand have previously trod, and in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, he steers Lady Gaga towards a performance worthy of her predecessors. Thanks to her earnestness and realism, and the palpable chemistry between her and Cooper’s co-lead, A Star is Born wins over the skeptical, like this viewer, through sheer force of will, using power ballads to blast through cynicism and create something visceral and invigorating. This is half of a perfect film, and disappointingly, half of something much less that that. While A Star is Born should deservedly open up new creative pathways for its leads, it falls short of being the sustained masterpiece that the first hour suggests it will be.
The Mercury Seven got their epic in The Right Stuff and so did the crew of Apollo 13, and now Neil Armstrong gets his cinematic apotheosis in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a Kubrickian masterwork from a director who’s said all he has to say about jazz. Finding fertile new ground in the space race, Chazelle instills his historic representations with the flintiness of his Whiplash characters, portraying Armstrong as a difficult man who, in his difficulty, may have been the only person capable of emerging from the trying 19606’s intact. Utilizing you-are-there filmmaking and the best of Ryan Gosling’s oft-internal performances, First Man signifies Chazelle’s emergence as a singular auteur in total control of his art.
John Curran’s Chappaquidick considers the political figure as a fundamentally weak individual. For all the nobility of public service, the job of an elected official is to work for the constant approval of one’s constituents, a transaction that, uncharitably framed, could be described as neediness, and Curran’s film frames its protagonist as a particularly needy individual. The Ted Kennedy of Chappaquidick is stuck in the martyred shadow of his brothers, and suspects that he’s the Kennedy least capable to fulfill his dictatorial father’s dreams of greatness. So much of the Chappaquidick incident took place behind closed doors, so the film inevitably fills in gaps with dramatic license, but it feels like it’s on the firmest ground when it’s considering the trade-offs and compromises that public life requires, up to and including the distortion of the final moments of a woman’s life to preserve a man’s career.
Acclaimed director Jacques Audiard turns his eyes to the Old West in his first English-language film, The Sisters Brothers. Audiard’s film becomes immediately noteworthy by the very long list of production companies that precede the opening frames, a testament to how difficult it’s getting to make a mid-budget film, even one that includes a main cast of four actors in their creative primes. Getting those dozens of companies on the project ultimately did the Sisters Brothers few favors, as it was ignored by audiences and forgotten by critics. Audiard has been at the helm of great films in his native France, but something’s missing in this particular corner of the frontier.
For his feature debut, Jeremiah Zagar embodies the independent cinema tradition of cribbing from Terence Malick, but with minority protagonists. Zagar’s film about a multi-racial family of five in upstate New York immediately evokes the Waco portions of Malick’s Tree of Life with its central family of three rambunctious boys, a gentle mother (Sheila Vand), and an unpredictable father (Raul Castillo). This strategy worked for David Gordon Green’s George Washington and it may very well work with Zagar, because his We the Animals is the work of a deep and promising filmmaker.
There are chilling, nigh-unspeakable horror films like Rosemary’s Baby or Raw or Hereditary that worm into one’s psyche and push the limits of being able to sit in a seat, while there are others that bolt the viewer to the chair in perfectly-calibrated suspense i.e. Alien and The Thing. A Quiet Place is more indebted to the latter example, a helluva thrill ride that doesn’t linger as long as the former type. John Krasinski’s surprise hit dedicates itself to building the most crowd-pleasing film possible within the confines of its genre and its high-concept premise. It efficiently gets in and gets out, barely leaving a mark, but that ephemerality doesn’t prevent A Quiet Place from being tremendously entertaining.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.