The seventeenth installment of our column in which a few of our critics discuss the films they’re most looking forward to being released in theaters or for the first time on Blu-ray during the coming month.
Kevin Jones: As the calendar turns to May, the release schedule for theaters is starting to favor blockbusters, leading to a rather limited selection of independent and arthouse releases. Fortunately, what the specialty releases lack in quantity, they more than make up with quality. One such intriguing upcoming release is On Chesil Beach. Directed by Dominic Cooke, the film is Cooke’s first film effort after a lengthy and successful career in British theatre with four Laurence Olivier Award wins and a successful TV career that led to a BAFTA nomination. Now, he turns his eye to film with an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name. The film tells the story of a young couple in the 1900s who see their blissful romance suffer from issues regarding sexual liberation and societal pressure. The screenplay was written by McEwan himself.
On Chesil Beach is also interesting because it stars Saoirse Ronan in her first major role after Lady Bird. It also finds her reuniting with material originally written by Ian McEwan, as she previously starred in the adaptation of Atonement. Pairing her with Billy Howle (oddly enough, Ronan and Howle star together in two films coming out this month in the US, both this film and The Seagull), it will be interesting to compare her work in this film to Brooklyn, as both are period romances films that probe issues that arise in a relationship of that period. This one, especially, seems in touch with the issues of the 1960s as it examines the changing sexual mores of the time and how they impact a marriage.
Dalton Mullins: On Chesil Beach will be interesting to compare to Ronan’s recent performances. She has worked her way into one of the best and most sought after actresses working today and since this film is thematically similar to Brooklyn, I believe this will be another showcase of her extraordinary acting abilities. It’s also intriguing to see how Cooke transfers from the stage and small screen to the big screen. I’m excited to see how Ronan performs in this one and to see if Cooke can develop a successful career in filmmaking.
Kevin: Also coming out this month is First Reformed. For director Paul Schrader, the film seems like a bit of a reclamation project after his last few films were either disowned by him due to the studio taking over production or fell flat upon release. Now, he returns with the critically acclaimed First Reformed, which stars Ethan Hawke as a chaplain dealing with guilt over encouraging his son to join the Army only for him to be killed in action. Based on the film’s synopsis and the trailer, it certainly seems to be an incredibly intense film, which fits well with what Schrader is known for, especially from his writing with Martin Scorsese.
It will also be quite interesting to see Hawke in the role. He has appeared in his fair share of intense emotional films, but this one seems to be taking it to another level. It is certainly quite the 180 from his recent output, whether in Before Midnight, Boyhood, or even his goofy supporting appearance in last year’s Valerian. This is definitely a role that will ask him to take the same introspective character drama from Boyhood, but with a far heavier emotional aspect.
Dalton: This has been high on my personal most anticipated list since it’s festival run last fall. It looks to be a strong return to form for a director whose films seem to elicit reactions that are polar opposites of each other. It certainly does seem to be an intense which, as you stated, is his specialty.
I’m also excited to Ethan Hawke in this role. Hawke has made himself into one of my favorite actors over the years. I’m intrigued to see how he does with a more intense and emotional film than he normally does. I’m also fascinated about Amanda Seyfried. She has shown an ability to give good performances in the past and at other times missed the ball entirely. I’m hoping she can add this film to her list of good performances.
Another film getting released this month is The Day After by prolific South Korean director, Hong Sang-soo. The story is a simple one. A wife discovers a love note written about her husband and she believes her husband’s secretary is the one who wrote the note. It stars Hae-hyo Kwon, Yunhee Cho, and Sang-soo’s new muse, Min-hee Kim.
From the trailer, you can tell that it is undoubtedly a Hong Sang-soo film. From the sharp black and white images of modern day Seoul and the quiet, to the dialogue, and finding poetry in everyday life.
I can’t wait to see Min-hee Kim in this film. She has really worked herself into the premier Korean actress. She was fantastic in Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden and I’ve heard nothing but good things from her other roles in Hong Sang-soo’s other films.
Kevin: Though I am unfamiliar with the work of Hong Sang-soo, The Day After definitely seems to be incredibly intriguing. The style and general simplicity of the plot both seem to be incredibly to my taste, as the film seems to be a rather beautiful and honest depiction of life as Hong Sang-soo sees it in South Korea. As you mention, the fact that it stars Min-hee Kim is even more intriguing, especially due to how different this promises to be from The Handmaiden. That is the only film I have seen in her in, but both her and the film were so intense and off-beat, that it will be a bit odd to see her in something far more emotional and low-key.
In addition to these theatrical releases, there are also quite a few great films getting released on Blu-ray for the first time thanks to the Criterion Collection. One such film is Beyond the Hills as directed by Christian Mungiu. Between the religious aspects, the modern commentary, and an exorcism, Beyond the Hills is a film that sounds incredibly intense. Though I am unfamiliar with Mungiu’s work, Beyond the Hills intrigues me as many of the best filmmakers of all-time have often dealt with deeply religious ideas and depictions – such as Ingmar Bergman – and it is always intriguing to see how a more modern filmmaker handles the same topics.
It is also a film that created quite a bit of discussion and controversy when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2012. Now that it is coming to Blu-ray, it will be incredibly interesting to finally watch the film and to see just what buttons Mungiu pushes and how far he is willing to take them. The very fact that this is a film concerned with LGBT issues while set in a convent certainly hints that Beyond the Hills is a film unafraid to push the envelope.
Dalton: I believe that Cristian Mungiu is one of the most underrated directors working today. He makes thoughtful and engaging films that, as you said, are unafraid to push the envelope.
Beyond the Hills does look to be about as intense that a film can get. With the many themes that are present and the two contrasting ideals of a convent and the LGBT community make for thought-provoking cinema. I’m excited to see this film and hopefully more of Mungiu will appear on Criterion in the future.
Another great film getting the Blu-ray treatment from Criterion is Robert Bresson’s haunting and beautiful Au Hasard Balthazar. The story concerns itself with the story of a donkey who is passed from owner to owner and to see how he is treated by each owner. It stars Anne Wiazemsky as one of the owners.
As is expected when watching a film by Bresson, there is a pervasive sense of sadness hanging in the atmosphere and multiple religious themes are presented throughout. However, there are some intense moments that may be hard to watch due to the abuse present in the film. Bresson is regarded as one of the greatest directors in history and Au Hasard Balthazar is known as one of his best. I’m excited to see it on Blu-ray and hopefully we can expect more from Bresson soon.
Kevin: Au Hasard Balthazar is definitely one of those films on my watchlist that I have always had reservations about, in large due to the abuse suffered by the donkey. If I recall, Robert Bresson himself stated that he had some regrets over how the donkey was actually treated on the set, which is always a hard hurdle to jump over when viewing a film with animals. However, of course, it is also cited as one of the best films ever made while being directed by a legend of cinema in Bresson. This is a true must watch and probably the most high profile release of the month. With the film focusing on the experiences of a donkey, the film is a true original as, obviously, not many films choose to present the world and the experiences it offers from the perspective of an animal.
As someone who has not watched the film, one of the ideas I want to focus on is something you mention and that is the religious themes. In particular, how the events that occur to Balthazar are intended to symbolize the seven deadly sins. As you mention, these religious themes seem to largely take thematic focus in the film, which will make it interesting to compare it to, again, Ingmar Bergman. Especially since Bergman himself did not care for Au Hasard Balthazar due to the focus on the donkey. Though this is a film that has long been on my watchlist, I’m as excited as you are to finally watch it for the first time on Blu-ray.