Joel and Ethan Coen are comfortable in any genre, but one can divide their monumental careers into tonally-similar baskets. While those baskets bleed into each other and overlap, a Coen film is going to be either a tense tragedy of errors, a philosophical puzzle, or some kind of goofy screwball comedy. My favorite version of their work is a combination of the second and third category, where classics like A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, and O Brother, Where Art Thou can be found. The Coens have a specific and elegant way of handling characters whose great efforts are buffeted around by the impartial forces of civilization, hapless strivers desperate for meaning in a universe resistant to it. When they add some slapstick and some humor, so much the better. Hail, Caesar falls into this camp, an homage to the classical Hollywood of the 50’s whose inhabitants want to believe they’re doing something important when they’re actually lining the pockets of unseen studio heads and narcotizing restless audiences. True to form, the Coens make a film where every scene begs to be interpreted, even the ones that rank amongst the funniest in their long careers.
Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda makes deeply felt family dramas revolving around the roles of parents and children and how the wires can get crossed. I Wish focused on two young brothers separated by divorce and their impulse to take charge in reuniting their family. Like Father, Like Son tracked the fallout from a hospital delivery room mix-up, a snafu that potentially reshuffles the two families at its center. Our Little Sister doesn’t have any parents among its main characters, but it has plenty of daughters acting as surrogate guardians to their younger siblings. The least structured of the three Koreeda films I’ve seen, Our Little Sister’s makeshift family is deeply endearing, and another beautiful piece of work from its director.
Modern media coverage guarantees that atrocities like mass shooting will now be covered for weeks, filling the public with dread and fear and morbid curiosity. The most recent (ugh) instance in Las Vegas shows no signs of abating two weeks later at the time of this review. In Keith Maitland’s meticulous reconstructing of the 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting, the opposite was true. Despite the deaths of 16 people and the wounding of three times that number, there isn’t much sense given to a national rending of garments. The Austin campus was open for class the following day. Any national examination is concentrated in the detailed memories and lasting trauma of the survivors, the heroes, and the bystanders. Maitland’s Tower uses rotoscoping animation to capture the deadly drama, allowing the viewer to relive an incident widely credited with being the fulcrum on which the depressingly routine cycle of US mass shootings rests.
Raoul Peck's incendiary documentary I Am Not Your Negro is 93 minutes of righteous invective mixed with shameful imagery. Based on novelist and gadfly James Baldwin's unfinished work on the murders of Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Peck intersperses Baldwin's written words (spoken by Samuel L. Jackson) with archival footage of Baldwin himself on chat shows in the 60's and 70's, speaking at length about the eternally-dismissed racial animus that has been with America since before its founding. Released in the period between the end of the country's first black president (which Baldwin might call a meaningless token) and the beginning of a president who said he would need to look into the KKK's views before he rejected their endorsement, it's difficult to imagine Peck's film coming at a more apt time. There are wannabe Nazi's marching in the streets, and in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck and Baldwin remind the viewer that is not a new phenomenon.
Icon of American cinema Martin Scorsese began his career with Mean Streets and its protagonist's struggle to reconcile his lifestyle with his Catholism. In the intervening 44 years, Scorsese has repeatedly grappled onscreen with his own faith. The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun both centered on religious figures struggling with doubt, and his long-gestating Silence returns to this theme. On the shelf since the 80's, Silence is Scorsese at his most austere, appropriate for a film about 17th century Jesuit missionaries and far from the rollicking hedonism of his best known gangster work. Having long made personal films, Scorsese's latest is cerebral, punishing, and very much the work of a man in his twilight years, wondering about what, if anything, comes next.
Director Paul Verhoeven had his greatest success with the kinds of films that teenagers love, but then they watch them again with more mature eyes and realize that beneath all the gore and comedy, a master satirist is at work. Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers all fit this mold, where Verhoeven used genre trappings to reel in his audience and then wallop them with black comedy and social insight once they're in the boat. In hibernation since Starship Troopers, Verhoeven roared back to life in 2016 with his masterpiece, Elle, a film that is no longer entertaining any mainstream appeal and is instead lampooning the violent male impulse that he had so gleefully indulged in.
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.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.