The opening scene of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the new Amazon show starring Rachel Brosnahan as a ’50s Upper West Side housewife turned downtown stand-up comedienne, finds Midge Maisel delivering a giddy, champagne-tipsy toast at her own wedding. We soon learn that lack of inhibition is one of Midge’s defining traits, along with a talent for cooking brisket and a motormouth with a witty bite.
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Watching The Final Year is a little bit like time traveling. The film, which opened the DOC NYC Film Festival last night, charts the last year of the Obama administration, following the president and his foreign policy team, including then-Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, as they navigate their final projects in office. The film was accorded the honor of opening this year’s DOC NYC, which runs through Nov. 16.
Mudbound burst onto the film scene during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered to near universal acclaim for its nuanced depiction of race relations and familial bonds in post-World War II Mississippi. Its Sundance premiere fell on January 21, the day after President Trump’s inauguration. The timeliness was difficult to ignore.
Brooklyn-bred director Dee Rees touched on the disturbing resonance of the film’s themes during a New York Film Festival press conference on Thursday. “I hope that people take away the fact that we can’t begin to tackle our collective history until we interrogate our own personal histories,” she said. “It’s not just about race––it’s about what ideas we’ve inherited, what attitudes we’ve inherited, and what we’re unconsciously passing on.”
The idea of inheritance is central to Mudbound, which hinges on the dynamics of two families––one black, one white––living on a farm in the American south. The film achieves a rare intimacy with each character in its starry ensemble cast, delving into the psyche and sensibility of each through private moments and voiceover of inner thoughts. Rees deftly delineates parallels between various members of the families, including the two solicitous mothers (played by Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige) and the two shellshocked sons coming home from war abroad (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund).
“This could’ve been a movie just about two soldiers returning from war, or this could’ve been a movie just about this family trying to better themselves,” Rees said. Instead, “the multiplicity of voices and different points of view” was what drew her to the labyrinthine epic. By according each character his or her own voice and story, the film operates as an enormous empathy machine, compelling the audience to penetrate the minds and moods of an array of diversely flawed characters. The technique feels especially powerful when set against a period of palpable racial animosity.
There is also a notably classical style to the filmmaking, engendered by gorgeous imagery and an epic narrative breadth. The bleak, muddy landscape becomes a motif that unites the characters in a common feeling of futility and isolation. When asked if she would categorize the film in a tradition of melodrama, Rees responded: “I just saw it as good American cinema. I wanted this to be an old-fashioned film. I wanted this to be a film like they don’t make anymore.” Addressing the film’s 134-minute runtime, Rees added, “I wanted to break out of the 90 minute artificial construct and just really let the voices ring out, let the story live.”
Rees’s debut film Pariah, which premiered to acclaim and a Cinematography award at Sundance in 2011, is an autobiographical rendering of Rees’s own experience growing up as a gay black teen in Brooklyn. Though Mudbound unfolds 70 years earlier and on a much larger scale than Pariah, both films demonstrate a profound perspicacity in dealing with splintering relationships and personal struggle.
Taking the empathy of Mudbound as a guide, the best way to move forward, Rees says, is by examining and confronting our own personal histories. “Each of our lives is a single thread, and we’re all weaving the same thing,” Rees said, speaking to the tattered racial tapestry that Mudbound illuminates. “We’re all connected to what happened before. We’re not separate from our past. We’re all actors in the present––we are not passively watching it. We’re all actors in what we’re creating.”
When describing her directorial debut, Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig turns to pop music: “It’s a pop song that’s really fun to sing along to––a really great upbeat song––and then you hear it covered by someone else, slowed down, and all of a sudden you can hear the lyrics and you think, ‘Oh no, that song’s tragic.’” As creative, intuitive, and vibrant as its writer-director, Gerwig’s film stars Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous Lady Bird, a restless high school senior eager to break out of her suffocating Sacramento hometown. But the film’s beating heart belongs to Laurie Metcalf, who plays Lady Bird’s aching, outwardly reproachful mother wrestling with how to say goodbye.
The Squid and the Whale hinges on a Natural History Museum finale. While We’re Young includes a memorable Bushwick block party. Mistress America follows the adventures of a Barnard undergraduate and her Times Square-dwelling future stepsister. Frances Ha is basically an advertisement for millennial New York living. This month, writer-director Noah Baumbach returns with his newest title, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a film that, like many of its predecessors, explores the contentious, comedic dynamic of a New York family.