Wonderstruck – Whatever Todd Haynes followed up Carol with was gonna be a step down. Wonderstruck is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel of the same name. The aesthetic shifts between periods — a 1920s silent black and white story and a vibrant 1970s one — are intriguing but lack a narrative and thematic gear to sustain itself until the film reveals how the two stories are connected. The reveal packs a warm wallop of emotion reminiscent of serious children films you’d see in the 90s, such as The Secret Garden. There’s a briefly fascinating decision to use subtitles to make the audience aware of their senses, but it’s not daringly pushed. Wonderstruck is Todd Haynes’ least accomplished and interesting work, but it’s an aesthetic exercise that works as a simple family film. (C+)
Lady Bird – Actor, writer, and director Greta Gerwig writes and directs this suburban California coming of age tale that may or may not be auto-biographical. Whether or not it is, it feels like it is. The dialogue pops and crackles like a 1940s Howard Hawks film, but told through the language of early 2000 California teens who think they have it all figured out, but, like everybody, they’re completely lost. Saoirse Ronan cements herself as maybe the best young actress in Hollywood with her performance as Lady Bird (her self given name). Gerwig captures the authenticity of teenage suburbia while making it feel theatrical and just heightened enough in emotion to make it seem like it could be your own memory of high school. Lady Bird navigates the ecstasy of first loves and the hierarchy of social circles with a sincerity and wisdom that could easily come off as obvious, but instead feels organic, though not quite profound. Gerwig’s script embraces the social dynamics of a John Hughes universe, leaving the film more like a breath of fresh air than a profound statement about youth.
While Gerwig is writing inside the lines of pre-existing high school cinema, she’s doing it with personality. Lady’s friends and family come into and out of her world, and there’s a feeling that they each have their own narratives that are just as moving and difficult as Lady’s. Gerwig suggests that paying attention to these other narratives is what gives your own narrative a purpose. I also wonder if the film has anything interesting to say about religion; a few lines suggest that Gerwig is trying to say something. The cast are a blast to watch, but Lady Bird‘s power is in its pathos that creeps through the film’s catholic school and suburban neighborhoods and expresses the feeling of leaving home, as well as reconciling with what home means after it’s gone. Gerwig’s ode to youth and home doesn’t re-write the high school film, but it leaves a note in your own yearbook that you won’t soon forget. (B+)
Thor: Ragnarok – A surprise of fresh of air for a Marvel film and a disappointing Taika Waititi film. There are moments of Waititi’s aesthetic of zooms and symmetry that make there way into this space romp, but they’re overcrowded by obvious green screen backgrounds and flat images — making this have little difference from a TV show. You’d think a film inspired by Flash Gordon would lean into that film’s practical designs and matte paintings. I suspect if Waititi had full control we’d have seen a more interesting film. Marvel’s episodic formula has been their biggest weakness since Age of Ultron. Hulk’s inclusion in this film isn’t vital to the story that it’s trying to tell, but his buddy comedy rapport with Thor ends up being a better film than its main story of familial revenge. Thor: Ragnarok has story issues, but it’s a buoyant film all throughout, anchored by Hemsworth’s charm and Waititi’s deadpan humor. Blanchett gloriously chews and hams up the entire film as the villain, Hela, though the character doesn’t live up to her performance. Ragnarok uses a standard superhero blueprint, but Waititi and the cast breathe enough colorful energy into it to make it worthwhile viewing. It should be noted that the action here has a gear that I’ve not seen in Marvel films since The Winter Soldier (2014). The aesthetic shortcomings and familiar storytelling don’t make it a necessary theater viewing, but if you want a funny buddy comedy, then it’s worth seeing at some point. (C+)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre psychological horror film is the best feel-bad movie of the fall. In a weird way, this would be a perfect Thanksgiving film to make you thankful for what you have. Barry Keoghan plays Martin, a teenager who begins to torment Collin Farrell’s Dr. Murphy and his family. Initially it presents itself a bit like Michael Haneke doing Kafka. There’s a strong Devil (Martin) versus God (Murphy) allegory that is gleefully unsettling to watch as the knot in your stomach grows tighter. Lantimos’ camera slowly prowls through hallways and fixates on its subjects like the grim reaper. There’s an eternal conundrum driving Lanthimos’ eccentricities, though an explanation to Martin and Murphy’s past makes the film lose some of its ambiguous power. Sacred Deer is so formally precise that it feel like a lethal injection, but the mythological undertones and distant emotions leave the film as just a skeleton that can’t quite hold together its brutal but intellectual ideas. Before the end of the year I plan to see this again, as I suspect it may gnaw away at my mind and grow. Dogtooth remains Lanthimos’ cleanest film, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer suggests he may be fine tuning his experiments. Lanthimos is incredible at setting up these bizarre worlds, but he has trouble finding the finish line. (B)