For a while in October there was a drought of good movies and it felt like the election was going to rip open the earth and Satan himself would stare up at us in horror. I don’t know if this ends with all of us dying (probs) but I do know that right now prestige cinema is approaching 88mph, baby!
The critical darling’s Moonlight and Certain Women are among the best of the year and you should see them. I’ll have a review on the latter in a few days. For now, there’s been some other notable films released. Here’s some quick thoughts on the November releases so far:
Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson has been released from movie prison and his first film in a decade is about Desmond Doss, a medic in WW2 who refused to use a weapon in battle and saved over 75 lives. There’s notable rust on Mel’s part as he shifts tonal gears like an Indy speed car racer, but by the end he’s nearing his old quality. The setup has a 1940s “aww shucks” corny optimism that sees Mel aiming for Forrest Gump, but ending up closer to Nicholas Sparks. Despite the hokiness there’s an old movie charm that Andrew Garfield brings out along with his (underused) leading lady, Teresa Palmer. Her presence is missed in the latter half, but Gibson has enough ammo here. The training and build up to deployment focuses on Desmond’s legal struggle with the army to go into battle without a weapon. Mel’s earnestness occasionally becomes jingoistic (the Achilles heel of American war films), but he achieves a camaraderie among the men—each of whom have their own “thing” a la MASH—and there are moments with self awareness. If the other gears had Mel sightly out of his zone then the battle is where he hits the pedal to the metal. They’re brutal and horrific and maybe tooooo opposite from the first half. At one point a character says, “We got company!” and starts shooting, which of course makes a movie instantly good. The overt religious imagery can be eye rollingly over the top but Garfield’s commitment to the nakedly earnest tone helps pull off Doss’ moral dilemma. Gibson stumbles along the way but ultimately accomplishes enough in this gung-ho popcorn war flick full of unapologetic cheesy charm and brutality. (B-)
Doctor Strange – In short, I wasn’t a fan of Marvel’s latest although I recognize it’s a fresh entry in their catalogue in terms of content. And I do enjoy the content here with sorcery, alternate dimensions, the multiverse, dark magic, and science. I just don’t think it’s formally or stylistically competent enough to even begin to channel this content in an exciting manner. There’s little playing with the ideas mentioned beyond special effects, and thematically it brushes off Stephen Strange’s materialism for spirituality in brief passing. It moves from plot point to plot point spewing expositional dialogue about intriguing ideas with awkward jokes sprinkled in. I also don’t feel that any of Strange’s growth is earned, and I think it’s too flat of a film to bring any of the magical content to life. Benedict Cumberbatch is a good actor, but using him like Robert Downey Jr. was a poor a choice that left the character feeling awkward. How about some camp! Use this talented cast! Add a little flair! Be weird! Still, if you’re a fan of everything that Marvel has done then be sure to see it at some point. It checks off all the basics. (D+)
Arrival – I really like Denis Villeneuve. I’m a big fan of Enemy and Incendies, and he crafted some incredible sequences in Prisoners and Sicario. In his first foray into science fiction, Amy Adams is a linguist tasked with communicating to Aliens that have landed in pods all over the earth. This is his most ambitious film, and one of impressive craft, but one that doesn’t entirely work for me. It’s too minimalistic for my personal taste, and only in sections clicks. To be fair, the moments it does work — the first meeting with the aliens, communicating, the climax — are damn good cinema. Villeneuve is an atmospherist; he’s not great with plot points or accelerating narrative, which makes the setup and second act railroad plotting/montaging kind of just going through the motions. Its few abstract moments are the one’s that felt in his zone. For me, there’s a disconnect with the thematic ideas of the film and the execution that left me cold, but I admire the message of teaching, unity and understanding. On paper the third act sounds fantastic, but the allusions to Terrence Malick are too copy and paste for me to buy (I usually eat up Malick thievery), and the final reveal is a leap I couldn’t take while also being squandered on thin family drama. I don’t love it but it’s absolutely a worthy entry in the recent Sci Fi canon despite me not totally buying what it’s selling. (B)
Loving – Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) is one of the most accomplished directors to emerge in the 2010s. There’s a calm artfulness to his 5th film about a 1950s interracial couple whose case went to the supreme court and changed the constitution. In a lesser director’s hands this might’ve become preachy, soggy and sentimental. He has an attention to detail and character that just usually isn’t in fall dramas. Nichols’ interests in crumbling familial structures, southern peripheral characters, and father figures trying live up to expectation are all present although bound by the biopic blueprint. While Nichols spans years in their lives, he never takes a hard turn into the biopic cliches, making the film a refreshing spin on a well trodden subject. This is a handsomely made film that reveals motivations not through dialogue but in actions and gestures. It’s a timely film about quiet courage in the face of hate. The surface is your average “issue” fall drama but it’s made with a thoughtful coating, and has a strong lead performance from Ruth Negga. (B-)
Of this bunch Hacksaw Ridge is the one I’d most recommend but Arrival is worth seeing as well.
Look for a post soon on Fantastic Beasts and another one on a film released this weekend that is among the best of the entire year.