The set-up: Struggling mother Marlo (Charlize Theron) finds herself overwhelmed when a third child enters her life. While her husband Drew (Ron Richardson) works 9 to 5, Marlo struggles with a new baby and a developmentally troubled young son. Then a free-spirited, young night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis), hired by Marlo’s well-to-do brother, helps alleviate her burden. Separated by over a decade in age, the two form a bond that extends beyond the occupational into the personal, revealing deeper secrets and uncomfortable truths about their lives.
The breakdown: Collaborating on their fourth film and second with Theron, writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman take a darker look at motherhood that focuses on Marlo’s frustrations and anxieties. As Reitman notes in the featurette “The Relationships of Tully,” Cody does not write easy characters, nor is this a film that provides easy answers. It is hard to discuss the central themes of the movie without dissecting its narrative arc, but it did incense many mental health advocates who found it reckless. Once you see the film, you can decide for yourself. I found it powerful and moving despite that criticism, and even if the third act does not quite deliver the full impact it should.
The set-up: After their self-driving car is hacked, detoured, and overturned, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife are attacked. She is killed and he is left paralyzed from the neck down. Embittered and cared for by his mother, he undergoes a secret, illegal operation from a tech wunderkind (Harrison Gilbertson) who implants an A.I. chip called STEM onto his spine. Soon after, Grey is fully functional again, enhanced with super agility by the A.I. that speaks to him inside his head (with a voice akin to HAL from 2001). With the aid of STEM, Grey covertly hunts down his wife’s killers while pretending to be paralyzed to the world at large. But as Grey undergoes his quest for vengeance, disturbing truths and consequences emerge.
The breakdown: Writer-director Leigh Whannell (SAW, Insidious) detours from chiller fare to take a bleak look into a future with dubious benefits. Smart cars, smart houses, omnipresent drone surveillance, and weaponized, cyborg-like humans forecast an unwelcoming future for mankind. What the movie lacks in storytelling originality, it makes up for with energized, off-kilter fight sequences, an often frenetic synth score, and characters struggling with life in a high-tech world gone awry. Before his accident, he liked to get his hands dirty with cars; now they are stained with blood. Upgrade overdoses on violence but still has some interesting ideas at its core.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The set-up: The Mad Titan Thanos (a super CG-ed James Brolin) wreaks havoc across the universe as he collects the six Infinity stones — Space, Reality, Power, Soul, Mind and Time — with the goal of being able to wipe out half the human population as part of his plan to bring balance to the Universe. Overpopulation on his homeworld lead to the decimation of its people and resources, and he seeks to stop such catastrophe again. Thus it is up to the combined power of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the army of Wakanda to stop Thanos and his minions from achieving his twisted and destructive goal.
The breakdown: Marvel fans have anxiously been awaiting this epic slugfest, and as grandiose superhero opera it does not disappoint. Directing brothers Joe and Anthony Russo find the right balance between pathos and humor, tragedy and hope, and battle scenes and contemplative moments. As fans know by now, many heroes tragically perish here. I have to admit that I have reached superhero fatigue at this point, but Infinity War still sucked me in. We’ll see if Marvel takes this story concept all the way in the sequel.
A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)
The set-up: A Royal Air Force pilot named Peter Carter (David Niven) accidentally cheats death when he jumps from a burning fighter plane without a parachute and lands in the English Channel. Awakening upon a beach, he soon finds and falls in love with June (Kim Hunter), the woman he spoke to moments before the plane crash. But when angelic forces above realize his soul was meant to be delivered, an emissary from Heaven (Marius Goring) comes to retrieve him; he refuses to acquiesce. This sets up a showdown at a heavenly tribunal that will determine whether he can stay on Earth because of his newfound love. But is this otherworldly drama actually taking place, or does he simply have a brain injury that requires surgery? Either way, the stakes are life and death.
The breakdown: Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Matter Of Life And Death is a masterpiece and one of the best films ever made. The movie ruminates on the nature of love, race, war, and what truly matters in this world. Intentional or not, it presented a radical view of religious beliefs for its time — all the scenes in Heaven are shown in black and white, while all the scenes on Earth are in Technicolor. The effects were impressive for the time and still generally look good today, and the film’s timeless themes certainly carry over today. The bonus features will certainly get you more interested in Powell and Pressburger’s other work.
Rediscovering Vincent Ward
The director who brought us What Dreams May Come, and who created the original story for Alien 3, Vincent Ward is an underrated and underappreciated visionary. Arrow Video uncovered his first feature film, Vigil (1984) as well as his masterpiece The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988), the latter one of my favorite films of all time and a rare video release.
In Vigil, an 11-year-old girl on a remote New Zealand farm (Fiona Kay) struggles with impending womanhood while she, her mother, and grandfather cope with her father’s accidental death due to a poacher’s negligence. But when grandpa hires the guilt-ridden poacher to help maintain the troubled farm which the mother seeks to leave, things become tense in their isolated environment. Combining magical realism, sexual frankness, and a striking hillside landscape, Vigil is an unusual coming of age tale and a strong debut.
For The Navigator, Ward and his co-writers submerge us in the fantastic. In 14th century Cumbria, the Black Death threatens a small village. Young Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) has visions that if he, his bother Connor (Bruce Lyons), and their friends tunnel through the earth, they can reach the other side, place a special cross atop a majestic church spire, and ward off their impending doom. They do as instructed…and wind up in 20th century New Zealand. But they must locate their holy destination in time. Contrasting the black and white look of the Dark Ages with the color of modern times, which reflects themes in the film, Ward and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson truly help us feel the awe and terror that these ancient characters feel when they encroach upon our strange new world. It’s a wild ride that has a fantastic soundtrack.
On top of excellent audio and visual remastering, Arrow includes some nice extra features; specifically, detailed liner notes, a historical perspective from British film critic Nick Roddick, and vintage ‘80s interviews with Ward, who ceased making films a decade ago to focus on painting and fine art. The Navigator is the superior film, but if you like that, Vigil will intrigue you as well.
Netflix Fix: Disenchantment (2018)
A new Matt Groening series! First came the family hijinks of The Simpsons, then the sci-fi shenanigans of Futurama, and now the medieval fantasy farce of Disenchantment. This 10-episode first season introduce us to freewheeling, hard-drinking, bucktoothed princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson) of Dreamland who, accompanied by the innocent Elfo (Nat Faxon) and the devilish Luci (Eric Andre), seeks a sense of purpose within the staid environment and against the old-fashioned expectations of her dumpy father, King Zøg (John DiMaggio). Bean is smarter than Homer Simpson and Philip J. Fry, and she rebels out of malaise and the loss of her mother at a young age. To be honest, the laugh factor of each episode varies a lot, but it is more adult themed than Groening’s other shows with more dramatic undercurrents and even brief gory moments. The liner narrative arc also provides consistency and leads to a shocking twist by season’s end. It’s a bit uneven but promising start and worth watching.