With only four films over a 19 year period, Lynne Ramsay is tragically not a prolific filmmaker. Her stylish direction and singularly difficult protagonists mark her as a notable talent, with each film better than the last. After the bracing psychological horror of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay finally returns to screens with the equally unsettling You Were Never Really Here. Led by Joaquin Phoenix, who’s adding another brilliant performance to his resume, the film moves quickly and packs a fierce punch, alternately thrilling and emotional and terrifying in its depiction of dark underbellies and psychic scars.
There is an emptiness creeping into the Transylvania University of American Animals. Despite taking place in 2004, when the country is in a spasm of patriotism and war, young men who might have earlier exhausted their grandiose energy in the military instead utilize it for fraternity parties and sexual conquests. Even that’s not enough for the quartet of privileged doofuses at the center of Bart Layton’s quasi-docudrama. Not content with the title of ‘did the longest keg stand,’ they instead decide to steal rare books from the library for no discernible reason other than the possibility that it can be done. This is the young-male version of Spring Breakers or Bling Ring, an ecstatic and nihilistic dirge tolling for the end of the species.
Exactly no one believed that prolific director Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from filmmaking would stick. Soderbergh took a few years to dabble in television, with exceptional results, and he finally returns to the big screen with Logan Lucky. His latest revisits the grand heists of Ocean’s 11, replacing the gawdy glitz of Las Vegas with the drawls of West Virginia. Soderbergh roars back to life as surely as the NASCAR vehicles featured in a film that retains the charm and humor of his other caper films while adding levels of earned sentimentality that his work has often been too cool to engage with.
Modern Westerns like No Country For Old Men meets a rural, low-key version of Heat in David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water. With its Texas setting and its equal time given to the crooks and the cops that are chasing them, Mackenzie's film, written by the increasingly impressive Taylor Sheridan, is buoyed along its fairly familiar path by a top-notch cast and a resonant backdrop of scheming bankers and post-industrial blight. A perfect fit for 2016, the film gives a voice to those who want to punch the powerful in the nose by any self-destructive means necessary.
John Hillcoat has several feathers in his cap, particularly his two bleak masterpieces (The Proposition, The Road) and his rambunctious Prohibition tall tale (Lawless). That's a track record to recommend, but it all comes to a halt with Triple 9, Hillcoat's stultifying attempt to make a modern Heat. His earlier films never get anywhere near boring, but his latest is stuck in the quicksand of uninteresting characters and genre rehashes. Hillcoat has assembled an A-list cast to reprise tropes that were either created or better utilized in far superior films.
Johnny Depp does his heavy make-up thing in Scott Cooper's Black Mass, a crime drama about Boston's Whitey Bulger. Cooper, with the affecting Crazy Heart and the alienating Out of the Furnace under his belt, is leaning more into the Furnace side here, as Black Mass is competent but cold and mostly unmemorable. Bulger is an intriguing subject only for a person otherwise unfamiliar with how criminals operate in ethnic enclaves and are later represented in cinema.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.