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.
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.
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.
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.
Barry Jenkins’ anticipated follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight keeps the lovingly-appointed close-ups and an immaculate Nicholas Britell score, and adds a period and familial dynamic that both broadens the scope of the film and places an insurmountable antagonist against its characters. Adapted from a James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is plainly from the same director as Moonlight, one of the best films from the last decade and one whose longevity will likely persist in critics’ lists in perpetuity. Where Moonlight focused intensely on its protagonist at different phases of his life, If Beale Street Could Talk splits its focus amongst several characters who, though, they share a common goal, occupy different tactics and spaces and therefore divide the film’s precision into smaller parts. Beale Street carries Jenkins’ unique signature and is a worthy entry into his filmography, but Moonlight looms so large and, formidable as it may be, Beale Street takes on too much to match or exceed its fabled predecessor.
With its title, The Childhood of a Leader places the viewer in a specific frame of reference as they watch a young boy rebel against his parents in the immediate aftermath of WWI. The boy, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is the only child of any import in the film, so he’ll one day turn into the leader of the title, and the Versailles Treaty setting strongly implies that he’s a burgeoning fascist who will one day reign death and destruction upon the earth. Writer/director Brady Corbet effectively starts with the ending and makes his audience watch for every potential brain wrinkling that will turn Prescott into a psychopath, if he isn’t already one when the film begins.
Jennifer Fox goes deep into her past and her psyche for the autobiographical The Tale, a harrowing and disconcerting story of memory and abuse. This is as personal as it gets, as Fox holds nothing back in the depiction of what happened to her, and how she interpreted it at the time and for much of her life after. It nears the unrecommendable category of difficult movies, but it’s also an important examination and rebuttal of so many dismissive arguments regarding the experience of sexual abuse, delving into the psychological labyrinths and counter-intuitive actions a victim can construct and take to live with their experience. Fox’s background is in documentary filmmaking, and The Tale represents a merging of her journalistic know-how and a compelling grasp of intimate storytelling.
Ryan Coogler’s Creed was the rare seventh entry in a franchise that could make an play for being the peak of the series. Replicating Creed’s contemporary relevance, cinematic power, and the series’ best acting would be a difficult task for Creed 2, the eighth film featuring the characters created by Sylvester Stallone 42 years ago. Not only has Coogler stepped aside, but the film takes its antagonist from Rocky’s corniest fight, in which the stakes were no less than the persistence of the Soviet Union. In his takeover as director, Steven Caple Jr builds on what Coogler reinvigorated, namely relying on lead Michael B. Jordan’s wounded intensity and getting surprisingly strong performances out of franchise characters. The franchise can digest a little corn when the bones are this strong.
What makes Felix van Groeningen’s addiction drama Beautiful Boy stand out is how it differs from other films like it. Stories about relapse and recovery and rock bottom have built in tension and act transitions, and they often choose to end happily with some breakthrough, giving the viewer the impression that the events of the film only depict a phase in a character’s life and not a continuous struggle. Beautiful Boy, adapted from David and Nic Sheff’s memoirs, discards that triteness, rightfully so. If addiction is a chronic disease, then preventing relapse is a lifelong and daily process, and for Groeningen, who made the similarly unflinching Broken Circle Breakdown, this struggle must be shown in its maddening truth. That kind of admirable honesty, where every victory is temporary and choosing to do nothing can be the best choice, perversely makes the film itself into a slog, an earned one but a slog nonetheless.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.