Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
Olivia Wilde’s festival entry Don’t Worry, Darling didn’t do as well with critics as expected, but after Booksmart, I’m willing to give it a go. The film stars Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, and Chris Pine in a 60s-set drama whose mystery isn’t exactly revealed in the trailer. Wilde also co-stars in the film, as does KiKi Layne. Since Harry Styles hasn’t done much at all yet, I’m going to do something unique with this go around. Olivia Wild gets the mention not once, but twice. I’m going to tackle Pugh, Pine, Layne, and Wilde as actors and then Wilde again as a director, which should already tell you one of the five titles on this week’s list.
Ron Howard films come in two types: well meaning, but bland and forgettable features (A Beautiful Mind) and well-crafted, but barely remembered films (Apollo 13). Rush falls into this latter category, the smaller of the two. The film looks at the rivalry between race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and the 1976 Formula One racing circuit that pitted the two legends against one another. Hunt is a fun-favored egoist who doesn’t consider anyone his equal. Lauda is a serious, hyper-intelligent egoist who wants to prove that knowledge over excess is the most important thing.
The competition between these two titans was riveting to watch and as one rises to fame, the other crashes and burns, in one case literally. Olivia Wilde has a short part in the film as Hunt’s first wife who divorced him after having a whirlwind romance with Richard Burton. Whether or not Wilde is memorable in the film or not (and she’s not), this was a picture about two stalwart personalities and Hemsworth and Brühl are fantastic in these roles and while Brühl’s presented personality is often grating, you can’t begrudge him any of his victories or recriminations. You could almost think of these two as the Mozart and Salieri of the 1976 racing circuit.
Wonder Woman (2017)
For the DCEU (DC Extended Universe), it took director Patty Jenkins to finally realize that what was needed wasn’t an uber-dark, nihilistic look at superheroes. Wonder Woman stars Gal Gadot as the Amazonian warrior princess. Gadot has done well at inhabiting the figure in her several outings as the character. While many of an older generation will remember Lynda Carter fondly, Gadot is a beacon for a younger generation and this film highlighted all the ways she deserves that designation.
The film begins with Gadot’s antiquities expert alter-ego Diana Prince receiving a photographic plate that forces her to remember back to World War I and the love of her life that she lost: Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Pine plays Trevor so blandly that it’s hard to understand Prince’s love for him, but the film generally makes the case for her attraction, yet is more importantly a testament to the power and strength of women in battle. Amazon women were notedly fierce warriors and Gadot embodies Wonder Woman in that way, but it’s not just her will and battle prowess that defines her as a strong woman, it’s how she stands apart from the misogynistic and unequal times in which she found herself embroiled.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
The kinds of romantic dramas that play to broad audiences are often period dramas that pit a couple against the times in which they live. If Beale Street Could Talk is akin to a lot of those films, but feels much smaller in scale and that’s thanks to writer/director Barry Jenkins deciding to keep the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) intimate. That doesn’t mean he makes it a banal affair. His and cinematographer James Laxton’s careful crafting of scenes and moments in the film help elevate what could have been an easily forgettable small-scale feature into something of artistic beauty.
Tish and Fonny have fallen in love in the 1970s and while they move around the streets of New York City, they are not free of the baked-in bigotry of the era. The story follows the pair in the lead-up to and aftermath of an incident where a woman falsely accuses Fonny of rape, sending him to jail and launching Tish’s mother’s (Regina King) attempts to secure a retraction from his accuser while Tish and Fonny prepare for his long stint in prison as a result. While the film explores the unbending love between these two figures, it also embodies the hope and dreams of an entire community forced to live as second class citizens in a nation where equality is still a struggle.
While Wilde might have been forgettable in Rush, her Booksmart is anything but forgettable. It’s a coming of age comedy about a pair of High School friends preparing to go off to college. They realize that they’ve spent the majority of their school careers preparing their lives for college, but that, as a result, everyone else in High School has instead been having the times of their lives. They decide to let loose and hilarity ensues.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever co-star as the intellectual pair of social pariahs who have a great deal of fun getting into trouble like they’ve never done before. Like kids set free in a toy store or candy shop, the hijinks they get into are completely over the top. They quickly learn more about themselves, each other, and their fellow students while also taking almost four years’ worth of shenanigans and cramming them into a short window of time. It’s incredibly funny, wonderfully tender, and features a most satisfying train of events. Few directors can not only make their comedies funny, but say something at the same time, but Wilde manages it with ease.
From comedy to horror, this week’s stars have done a lot of incredibly interesting and diverse work. Our final figure in this week’s list is the star of Wilde’s Don’t Worry, Darling, Florence Pugh. Since I included Pugh’s best performance in a recent article on Saoirse Ronan (Little Women), I thought I’d tackle what’s easily her second best performance to date this time out. In Midsommar, Pugh plays a traumatized woman who worms her way into a field trip to Sweden arranged by her boyfriend and three of his friends, one of whom lives in the remote Swedish village they’ll be visiting. Their journey is to experience a genuine midsummer celebration, one that their Swedish friend insists happens only once every 90 years for his particular commune.
In Ari Aster’s follow up to his fascinating debut Hereditary, the folk horror that dominated The Wicker Man is in evidence here. The increasingly bizarre ritual puts additional strain on Pugh’s relationship with Jack Reynor, who had already planned to break up with her prior to her sister’s untimely suicide. Meanwhile, their compatriots become suspicious of the other activities, but it’s become too late for any of them to escape and the film slowly boils to its visceral conclusion. Not a film for the squeamish, Midsommar is visually stylish without being ostentatious and the cast does terrific work, especially Pugh.