It seems only a few weeks ago that I was putting together my final list of the Best Films of 2017 (to be fair, that list did finally come out in April so it wasn’t that long ago). But with us firmly entrenched in the month of August it’s time for me to begin thinking of evaluating the Best Films of 2018 (of which my half-time report will come out probably early September). And given the well-established fact that I am an amateur (read:not paid) film critic who fits in writing this blog in between caring for two awesome (but still very young and time-consuming) kids, it means that I am only now able to start catching up with the bulk of most-buzzed about movies that came out earlier this year.
REVENGE (dir. Coralie Fangeat)
Coralie Fangeat’s feature film debut is a masterclass in deconstructing the male gaze and weaponizing it against toxic masculinity. In this lean thriller, Jen is the mistress of the French millionaire Richard who spend a weekend together in his secluded desert mansion. Two of Richard’s buddies Stan and Dimitri arrive earlier than expected for their annual hunting trip, whereby a night of drinking and generally flirtatious behaviour leads to Stan raping Jen while Richard is away. This nauseating scene is surrounded by an encyclopedic catalogue of rape culture excuses and defences. Stan rapes Jen because obviously she was asking for it. Dimitri’s remains a willing silent witness. And even Richard, after his initial shock of the act has worn out, defends Stan saying Jen is such a beautiful woman so of course Stan would be attracted to her. And then in the ultimate show of “bros before hoes” they decide to kill Jen and close ranks with one another. Unfortunately for them, they botch the job and Jen, in a mixture between survival and outright revenge decide to enact poetically violent justice on them turning this into a riotous exploitation film. It is a visceral film that is frequently compelling however it is also just too long. I realize that an hour and forty-eight minutes, the movie is already pretty lean but there are moments in the middle-third, especially surrounding some hallucinogenic sequences, that drag. Once Jen walks away from her ill-executed murder, it is quite obvious where this movie is headed and it just doesn’t seem that there is enough mystery to justify stretching the obvious conclusion further. Still, there is a lot to like about this highly-stylized movie and is an encouragingly confident debut from Coralie Fangeat.
HOSTILES (dir. Scott Cooper)
By this point in the life-cycle of the Western, we are so thoroughly entrenched and well-versed in revisionist Westerns that merely dismantling the myths of the frontier seem neither shocking nor eye-opening. And so this is the case with Hostiles which chronicles the final Western frontier journey of Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he undertakes his last mission to escort his bitter rival the dying Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk to his tribal lands. Captain Blocker represents the kind of flawed Western protagonist that is a mainstay of revisionist Westerns: a single-minded soldier whose tenacity is fuelled ultimately by his racist views towards Native Americans which renders him as slightly less than a hero. And as his task involves escorting his bitter rivals to their sacred land, his journey is also a fairly predictable one. Two things however keep this movie from being derivative. The first is the cinematography by Masonobu Takayanagi who frames a truly amazing backdrop for the story to unfold. And the second is Bale himself who puts in what for him is yet another workman-like performance that only cements his greatness as an actor.
RED SPARROW (dir. Francis Lawrence)
The central problem of Red Sparrow is that it cannot decide what kind of film it wants to be. Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika, a famous Russian ballet dancer whose career is cut short and finds herself being recruited by her uncle into becoming a Russian spy at the height of the cold war. This leads her down a twisty path in which she finds herself ensnared by her Russian minders trying to escape while also spying on an American CIA operative (Joel Edgerton). If that sounds like the premise of just about every modern female-driven spy movie (Atomic Blonde or Marvel’s Black Widow in particular) it’s because it does. The look and tone of the film suggests that the movie wants to be a sleek, smart, and sexy thriller that functions as a coming-out party of sorts for Jennifer Lawrence into her more adult roles. However the plot is so convoluted and the characters so thinly drawn that it fails as a captivating spy thriller. But conversely the movie is also so self-serious that it cannot also be enjoyed as a campy classic either. Lawrence acquits herself well here, but unfortunately it far from the post-Hunger Games star-vehicle that she deserves.
GAME NIGHT (dir. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)
Truth be told everything about the premise of this movie turned me off when I first heard about it. The idea of an intensely competitive couple’s regular game night going awry seemed on initial hearing like an excuse for the kind of mean-spirited and lazy kind of comedy that primarily involves us laughing at the characters. But credit where credit is due: thanks to the performances and the sly writing this movie rises above its farcical premise to provide a mostly hilarious couple. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams plays opposite halves of this hyper-competitive couple who meet during a trivia night and the movie works because they are intensely believable as a couple who have comfortably formed a life together. Some of the funniest moments of the movie comes because their bickering in the middle of an absurd crisis sounds exactly like the kind of semi-exasperated bickerings long-time couples get into, minor tolerances included. And while lazier writers might have made them a type-A driven couple that is highly successful, screenwriter Mark Perez is smart to make them a competitive couple mired in the middle in terms of status where their only outlet for truly winning is the semi-sacred ritual of the weekly game night they put on with their friends. Joining Bateman and McAdams is an excellently rounded cast featuring Kyle Chandler as Bateman’s more successful brother who manages to push all his buttons and is the one who set their game night awry, Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury as another long-time couple who face a mini-crisis of sorts of their own during the night, Billy Magnusson as a vapid man-child whose main claim to fame is usually bringing an equally vapid female love interest every week to this game (and in charge of the funniest scene of this movie), and Sarah Horgan who happens to be Magnusson’s against-type partner this week. Together they set the stage for a riotous and over-the-top adventure that is frequently funny, even as the third act of the film stretches all reasonable measures of believability.
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (dir. Sebastian Lelio)
First things first: Daniela Vega puts in an absolutely stunning performance and deserves just about every accolade that is thrown her way for her performance as Marina Vidal, a transgender woman who finds herself bereft with grief when Orlando, her older lover, passes away suddenly, leaving her extremely vulnerable both from the standpoint of a system that does little to acknowledge her relationship to Orlando and from his ex-wife’s family who seem hellbent on denying Marina’s existence. If there is a fault to this movie, it is that it is yet another prestige movie about the transgender experience that seems to major in sorrow and grief rather than showcasing some of its joys. But to her credit, as horrible and humiliating a path that Marina takes in the days following Orlando’s death, it hardly matters because Vega plays her with such an indomitable strength and tenderness that she commands the story and with it, never loses her power against her petty oppressors. Though the people around her do and say everything to undermine her identity, there is no doubt that she lives up to the movie’s title.