Mia Hansen-Løve has recently emerged as a major director on the international scene with a set of empathic dramas. In her films, characters process sea changes in their lives with a patience and even-handedness absent from other works about similarly momentous life events. Hansen-Løve understands that most people’s lives move in inches, not miles. She knows how to glean significant insights about human response under duress by analyzing these small yet meaningful moments.
With the possible exception of Eden, her decades-spanning tale of a Llewyn Davis-like also-ran in the French garage music scene, Hansen-Løve’s Maya represents her most sprawling and weighty canvas to date. The film follows France journalist Gabriel Dahan (Roman Kolinka) after his release from Syrian captivity and his gradual drift back towards some semblance of normalcy. While Hansen-Løve avoids homecoming or PTSD clichés in charting Gabriel’s convalescence, she does stumble into a few other tropes of (particularly Western male) recovery once he leaves Europe behind.
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Lee Chang-dong‘s Burning moves at a pace all its own, telling a tale of mystery and obsession with no easy answers. Hypnotic, haunting, and featuring an incredible performance from Steven Yuen, Burning is one of the year’s best movies.
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Writer/director Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased starts off resembling a prison drama. Lucas Hedges’ Jared Eamons shows up to Love in Action, a conversion therapy program designed to “cure” gay people, and must surrender his possessions. An orderly tells him they will call random numbers in his cell phone during the day. In addition, the original stories in his notebook might be subject to confiscation if they reflect any of the desires that the center attempts to purge.
Even as imposing as Love in Action is, the real prison in Boy Erased is Jared’s own thoughts. In a remarkably subdued performance, Hedges shows that his character’s mind, racked with guilt and shame his community has told him to feel, will be the site of the most important reckoning in the film. Jared is uncertain in how to navigate the cruelness of conversion therapy, either by giving in or resisting full stop. The hesitancy in responding externally plunges him deeper into his own mind and memory.
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Alzheimer’s, estranged family, life lessons, Hilary Swank – just add a free space and you’ve gotten a winning card in prestige drama card bingo! And yet, in that incalculably magic way that movies can achieve, What They Had manages to come out to something more than the sum of its imperfect parts. The film, written and directed by newcomer Elizabeth Chomko, often feels like the first feature that it is. But with some help from a crack team of actors as well as her own reservoir of compassion, she steers the film confidently through some turbulent waters.
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With Hold the Dark, Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier crafts a bleak, unforgiving film with an ever-increasing body count. Shot through with menace and unapologetically nasty, Hold the Dark is bound to horrify some viewers to the point of disengagement.
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It hardly counts as a spoiler, but the ending credits of Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation feature a black marching band and drum major performing to Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” While ending on such a banger makes sense for a movie that professes allegiance to little else besides the right to kick ass, there are more layers to this moment than pure self-gratification. Cyrus’ song (and its scandalous video) was more than just a catchy tune. In the early days of the mainstream debate over cultural appropriation, “We Can’t Stop” was a cultural battleground.
Cyrus’ practice of poaching black culture for her own gain and then relegating black people to sideshow status in the performance of their own techniques generated enough thinkpieces to fill a library. Her infamous performance twerking at the 2013 VMAs while putting the sexuality of black women on display like a kind of exotic exhibition prompted Wesley Morris to call the spectacle the modern equivalent of slaves being forced to dance before their master. There are two possible explanations for Levinson and the filmmaking team summoning this cultural legacy in the bizarre bookend, neither of which reflect favorably on them. The first is ignorance, which is hard to fathom for a film that is so otherwise astutely aware on the repository of cultural images for young women. The other is a deliberate provocation, flipping the finger to viewers looking to view Assassination Nation through any kind of political prism.
Levinson’s willingness to ruffle the feathers of his audience is admirable, in large part because moviegoers looking for films grappling with relevant social issues are largely coddled and reassured of their own beliefs. Assassination Nation, a wildly irreverent reimagining of the Salem Witch Trials for the era of Twitter pitchforks, thumbs its nose at blatant virtue signaling. But this gesture is largely an empty one because Levinson mistakes taunts for thematic content. The longer the film goes on, particularly in a second half that flies wildly off the rails, the more apparent it becomes that the badass retribution-seeking emperors have no clothes.
From the film’s winking introduction offering a literal trigger warning as a montage surveys the hot-button topics it will broach, Levinson makes it clear he has little interest in indulging the audience’s pieties. Yet even while boldly declaring nothing will be out of bounds in his quest to perturb the pearl-clutchers, he finds common cause with many of the people he’d be offending by “owning the libs,” as Internet parlance has it. At least when conservatives pursue such aims, there exists the thinnest veneer of policy and worldview differences. Levinson does it because he seems to find it fun, which might be a more contemptible motivation.
It’s a shame that the revelation of this bad faith spoils some of the considerable accomplishments of Assassination Nation, which genuinely offers many worthy thoughts about sexuality, communication and justice by online mob. In many ways, the film is deeply progressive. Transgender actress Hari Nef’s Bex, for example, has a romantic arc that feels trailblazing for a film of this scale. Her surreptitious hook-ups with a jock both acknowledge the unique challenges trans women face in this arena while also connecting her hot-and-cold relationship to a more timeless experience of high school girls.
Bex is by far the most interesting character in a film full of familiar figures pumped up on steroids. Nothing else distinguishes the rest of her posse, a group of girls who make for perceptive observers and navigators of a treacherous social terrain – just not particularly compelling or dimensional people. What Levinson might lack in character development, however, he compensates for with his shrewd understanding of how people live their lives online. His penchant for the extreme serves him well when portraying the lion’s den that is the digital realm.
Few films capture the emotional stakes of being online better than Assassination Nation. Be it in the sound of a bomb exploding when a character smashes the “Enter” key on their computer or the tyranny of the push notification ruining the ability to focus on anything, Levinson connects the quotidian online actions to the meaningful feelings behind them. He also finds a satisfying visual representation of the digital world, such as with trisected frames that reflect how many teens experience reality – through the vertical aspect ratio of a phone screen. His approach to depicting text messages by overlaying the text dead center in the frame also begs noticing; Levinson emphasizes the primacy of digital communication in any moment, automatically superseding what’s actually in physical reality.
When Assassination Nation begins teasing out its premise, an ultra-contemporary update of ye old Puritanical values that scapegoated sexually forward women for a breach in social trust, all signs point to Levinson converting his earlier insights into thrilling commentary. Or, at the very least, putting a singular spin on the fabled tale. But with the help of a title card that says “one week later” when things hit the fan, Assassination Nation truly becomes a different movie. Rather than doing any of the intellectual labor necessary to resolve the issues raised, Levinson punts and lets the concept dissolve into The Purge-like anarchy.
Not every feminist-adjacent romp needs to abide by the guiding principles of the Women’s March or offer a clear ideological manifesto. Assassination Nation offers nothing but trolling as a replacement, though, and thus fails to consummate the promise of deliberations begun in its first half. Levinson is smart enough to know better while also apparently being brazen enough not to really care.
/Film rating: 5.5 out of 10
In High Life, Claire Denis heads to space, and brings Robert Pattinson with her. The result is a strange, surreal, often indecipherable trip into the darkest recess of the galaxy, and beyond. But what does it all mean?
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Over the last decade, Paul Feig has established himself as a director who loves to work with talented women. From Bridesmaids to Ghostbusters to The Heat, he’s often excelled at capturing the uniquely spiky relationships modern women have with each other and themselves. At first glance, his choice to direct the suspense thriller A Simple Favor may seem inexplicable, since Feig’s other films are all straight-up comedies. But A Simple Favor, surprisingly to its detriment, is a movie as interested in being funny and self-aware as it is in being twisty and tense.
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The world is hard. Movies are largely rising to the challenge of portraying that reality, which is wonderful – but the soul can only withstand so many depressing films. Sometimes, we need something that’s just nice. Not necessarily the saccharine sweetness of a Nancy Meyers movie, which is a delight, just something that revels in small victories for a good person. Director Sebastián Lelio understands that sometimes the sight of Julianne Moore dancing and smiling is enough to set the heart a flutter. Gloria Bell, his American remake of his own Chilean film, provides us the opportunity to celebrate the little things.
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There are very few filmmakers who can match the energy Nicolas Cage brings to the screen. Werner Herzog is one; his Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a bad-cop-gone-worse story, pits Cage against his drug-fueled demons and has them breakdance to taunt him. Adaptation, one could argue, traps Cage within creative claustrophobia and makes him force his way out. Perhaps this year’s Mom and Dad comes close, allowing Cage to take a sledgehammer to a pool table while singing the Hokey Pokey. But Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, in which Cage does more screaming than speaking, may well be the Holy Grail.
The Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit montage on YouTube is creeping up on a million views, and while it’s all too easy to make fun of it, the video also doubles as the show-reel of an actor willing to dive in headfirst unlike most others. Cage creates people that feel like they can’t be contained by a screen, and Mandy is the rare film (the only film, perhaps) that approximates what it must be like to live inside the head of one of his characters. It’s filled to the brim with melancholy energy, in constant motion even during its quietest moments, stripping away layers of meaning and imagery until it furiously smashes them back together. “Finally,” I thought, as Mandy reached its fiery climax, “a film about Nic Cage’s specific brand of sadness.”
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