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McAvoy is marvelous.
M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, the third in Shyamalan's Eastrail 177 trilogy after Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), breaks into fragments of story line that the director, in his classic style, ties up through twists that partially put the pieces together. Although James McAvoy's multiple split personalities are more bearable than in Split, and we do get into his psyche better, the character still confounds as his parts elide and crash up against each other.
As chief psychiatrist Ellie (Sarah Paulson) deals with three sociopaths who think themselves super heroes, the common denominator is traumas from childhood that never leave and do contribute to the adult's aggressive behavior. This disclosure is made multiple times in the film---unnecessarily.
In addition to McAvoy's many personalities, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a former security who should not be imprisoned in an asylum, is committed to arresting those McAvoy wackos while Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book fanatic, acts like a super villain right off the pages.
The director's homage to comic book culture is a bit late since comic book super heroes have peopled the pop cult scene for almost 20 years.
I'm making more sense than Shyamalan, for the basic story centers on the three inmates freeing themselves from the hospital and themselves. The sterile and lonely hospital might evoke Silence of the Lambs except that Hannibal Lecter is so much more developed than these one-dimensional, pulp heroes.
In addition, Lambs doesn't have to rely on plot twists to create an atmosphere of dread and fear. Agent Starling (Jody Foster) and Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) fully embody the good and evil, no one dimension for them.
McAvoy should receive some award for his seamless trips to his character's personalities. Willis and Jackson are underused, and perhaps that's my dilemma. Glass would make much more sense and have more intrigue if there were more of their characters. But then there would be more split characters to deal with. Enough already.
"This is not a cartoon. This is the real world." Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson)
On the Basis of Sex (2018)
An entertaining biopic about a living legal icon.
"Women have been losing the same argument for 100 years!" Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones)
Concerning sexual equality, the above quote best expresses the feisty young lawyer, RBG, and her early fight through the courts to overturn a tax code provision that discriminated against men. Thanks to her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), who found a discriminatory clause in the code, she was able to fight on behalf of her client and therefore women in their ambition to be equal.
On the Basis of Sex is an entertaining and informative docudrama not only about her early days at Harvard Law and as a mother and professor, but also the daunting task women had of competing with men for professional jobs that were denied them uniformly and openly. To see RBG denied legal job after legal job is almost to feel the anxiety this top-of-her-class graduate endured in finally taking a job as a professor by default.
Her eventual success in the tax case came not in a Hollywood glamorous moment but slowly after grinding research and disappointments in the court room. Anyone in law school should see this carefully crafted drama for the truths it tells about the hard work it was for this diminutive battler. Helping Marty defeat cancer was just another battle the future Supreme Court Justice would fight and eventually win but not easily.
On the Basis of Sex is an old-fashioned courtroom drama about a judicial titan whose life is still inspiring as she approaches its end. "He's not going to take me seriously," she says in an early encounter with a judge. We know how that turns out for liberalism's "Obi Wan Kenobi."
Made for kids, it's simple, fun, and better than most of the originals.
Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen voice): "Bumblebee, our war rages on. You must protect Earth, and its people."
For Transformers geeks, Bumblebee is the prequel, the most recent iteration since 2007. The Autobots have retreated from the war on Cybertron; this time the bad bots, Decepticons, follow B-127, a transforming mid-sixties VW Beetle, to earth in 1987 in order to snuff out the Autobots, who will be following Bumblebee, as the VW will be known.
This spinoff is not directed by Michael Bay but by Travis Knight, who reduces the agonizing length of Bay's usually-long films and also reduces the number of fights, but not enough for me. That you can actually see the fights clearly is a breakthrough from Bay, whose fight scenes are usually inscrutably jumbled. Anyway, Bay is a producer, but more importantly Steven Spielberg is an executive producer who probably helps infuse as much humanity as Knight can include in such a thin premise. Hasbro is the big winner with a likeable robot, and we win with an impressive heroine, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld).
Besides the emphasis on character, hallmarked by Charlie's sometimes excessive affection for the faded yellow VW, the film emphasizes the female presence, a big departure from the previous male-centered installments. Charlie is a loner with a heart for music and mechanical things, especially cars, and when she's not bewailing Bee's absence, quite effective protecting Bee and her new friend, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).
Although the film keeps Spielberg's youth orientation and pursuit of family love, it also keeps Bay's penchant for going too long with chase and fight scenes. Yet, the loving engagements between her robot and her family humanize Transformers' franchise much better than previous renditions, which uniformly neglect the softer side of humanity in favor of the masculine, fight set pieces.
CGI has improved noticeably with the transitions of the robots to and from autos. Seamless and smooth, the changes happen rapidly and almost believably. As for the transformation of the VW to a Camaro in the next film, count on it:
Optimus Prime: Old friend, you kept this planet safe. Because of you we have a future, B-127.
Manbiki kazoku (2018)
Watch out Roma--Shoplifters is lookikng at Oscar.
Hatsue Shibata: I was sure she'd want to go home.
Nobuyo Shibata: Do you think she... chose us?
Hatsue Shibata: Usually you can't choose your own parents.
Nobuyo Shibata: But then, maybe it's stronger when you choose them yourself.
After these demanding holidays, consider what "family" means. Regardless of your definition, Hirokazu Kore-eda' s Shoplifters will help define at least "extended family." This Japanese dramedy defines love as a central ingredient of family, despite the fragmented, sometimes tumultuous, little world of adults and kids occupying a small Japanese-style hoe, where most of what you see strewn around has been stolen from unsuspecting merchants and naifs prone to believing grifters.
Despite the formal nature of the film, romance is tucked away in heretofore unsuspecting corners such as everyone's love for and dependence on a 'Grandma" (Kirin Kiki), like others in this family not blood related but bound by affection and needs to be fulfilled through the small community. After Grandma's support, the other major source of funds appears to be outright shoplifting, facility by children savvy and innocent enough to win our hearts and never lose them.
Is this story funny? Yes. Is it eventually tragic? Yes. Do we love the characters anyway? Yes. Will this small film, winner of the Cannes' Palm d'Or, give jitters to the accepted foreign language Oscar competitors Roma and Burning? Yes. Should you see it with your family and expand your understanding of what family means? A resounding Yes!
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
An enduring love with unusual complication.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a languorous love story originally from acclaimed author, James Baldwin. Like few other romances on screen, it takes its time developing the deep and enduring love of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James), who has been accused of a rape he did not commit. She is pregnant but not slowed down enough to forsake trying to exonerate her fiancé.
Although this sounds like a thriller, it is mostly not. It is a measured and deeply felt story about the vicissitudes of love for a lovely black couple in the '70's. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins juxtaposes a warmly colorful mise en scene with a grim story not so dark because of the gifted actors making the audience believe they really are in love. Jenkins, no stranger to depicting prison life, parallels the story of Fonny's eventual fate while the mother of his son faithfully visits him in prison with news of progress on bringing his sad situation to trial.
The film is dominated by the soulful couple but also peppered with a rich variety of African-American life, from her mother, Sharon (Regina King), traveling to Puerto Rico on her future son-in-law's behalf, to his dad, Frank (Michael Beach), uncertain about how this happened to his family. The actors are first-rate and their life seemingly authentic. To listen to Fonny's old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) talk about prison life is to listen to a fine actor gently describing a horror.
If Beale Street Could Talk is strong theater that's really a film with a story thin on action but laden with love.
A stock thriller with a fierce Kidamn.
My grade of B- is all for the A-list Nicole Kidman showing us she can act like Charlize Theron in Monster. Destroyer is her film, and she does her best to show us she can be badass L.A. PD detective Erin Bell with years on her face and chips on her shoulder. It's just that the vehicle for this iconic actress is a middling thriller with a jumbled plot about her being an undercover cop, a heist gone wrong, and her annoyingly disaffected daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), for whom Erin suffers much.
Kidman is made up to look like a beaten woman, but we do get a few too many flashbacks to show us how beautiful she was as a young brunette cop with a future. Director Karyn Kusama keeps the camera close on Kidman, as if she were begging us not to forget that underneath some neat makeup beats the heart and face of a super movie star.
Beyond Kidman's overpowering presence, some solid performances emerge, for instance Sebastian Stan as Chris, her loving partner; and Beau Knapp, as the boyfriend Jay no one would want for your daughter. Myriad other minor characters reflect the complex world of LA, real and romantic. It's the best city I know for attractive crime and fetching diversity.
Perhaps the awareness of glamorous Kidman as a squinting Dirty Harry is what steers the film and her performance to mediocrity. This observation may condemn Kidman to playing courtesans and rich mothers, but the reality is that she has over the years crafted an enviable persona relying partly on her unusually good looks. Perhaps this rough detective will allow us to forget that image as she plays in more gritty roles that display, without distraction, a world-class actress.
If you are a Kidman fan (I became one after Moulin Rouge), see Destroyer, which just may pleasantly erase your picture of perfection.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Disney wins again: Entertaining and culturally important.
Vanellope (Sarah Silverman): "We are going to the internet!"
Ralph (John C. Reilly): "Super exciting! Just one minor thing: what is an 'internet'?"
If you have only a passing understanding of the internet and its dominant child, social media, then see Ralph Breaks the Internet. Disney has done another major job interpreting our culture, as it has before with such passing phenomena as arcades. Right down to how viruses operate and how social media direct all things social, this primer is understandable and enormously entertaining.
Of course, this animation is not primarily about the net; it is concerned with the complexity of friendship, exemplified in the enduring love of little Vanellope and very big Ralph. Unlike Beauty and the Beast, this love is platonic and deep. As she pursues a perfect internet game, Ralph must deal with his insecurities (brilliantly parsed like an internet weakness to be exploited by hacker types who promote the virus in her consuming game, Slaughter Race.
Boldly set in The Magic Kingdom, the animation features the collaboration of Disney's princesses, many with original voices( Vanellope: "Aw, come on! Princesses and cartoon characters? Barf!"). At one point as they survey big Ralph, one says how good it is to find a strong man who heeds help! This sequence along with the culminating musical number, A Place Called Slaughter Race, is worth the admission price.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
Excellent costume drama with incomparable acting.
If you like costume dramas but abhor their sometime surface charms, watch Mary Queen of Scots, a down and dirty and brilliant costumer about 16th-century's Queen Mary Stuart's (Saoirse Ronan) rise and fall. Cousin to Queen Elizabeth, the two have an uneasy alliance against men who want to depose them and the times that wish to marginalize them but can't. If for only helping to clarify the succession, from Henry VIII to James, the first king of England and Scotland, this docudrama is worth seeing.
Of course, history is not the main reason to spend 2 hours mucking around gloomy castles. It's the people! Besides the superb portrayals of the two queens by Ronan and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, a barrage of authentic looking and acting Earls and Knights gossip and plot enough to challenge the audience about allegiances. The severity of arch-conservative Scottish Catholics is no more likely to advance the cause of the Church in the eyes of the audience than contemporary pedophilic priests. In other words, the audience is immersed in the workings of English and Scottish monarchies and religion to a degree rarely seen on the screen.
Because of this authenticity, the audience cares about the players while it gets a first-rate history lesson. When Mary gets her head chopped off, she keeps her dignity and the audience, mindful of Marie Antoinette's end, is saddened but accepting of monarchs' cruel fates, then and now. "In my end is my beginning," she embroidered on her estate cloth, perhaps sensing well that her son, James, would one day rule. Tough lady, great mother, exemplary acting.
"How much better everything would be, if the two queens were indeed friends! For I see now that the world is not that that we do make of it, nor yet are they most happy that continue longest in it." (Mary to Randolph after death of two Guise relatives)
Holmes & Watson (2018)
It made ME laugh. Now that's a recommendation.
Needing a laugh with the high drama of the holidays, this notoriously difficult critic laughed more than once, many times in fact, with Holmes & Watson. In fact, the absurd humor, crafted by Ethan Cohen and expertly interpreted by Will Ferrell (Holmes) and John C. Reilly (Watson), made me think of Mel Brooks. That's a high compliment.
Sherlock Holmes has been imitated scores of times and lampooned almost as many, but this iteration, set in the second half of the 19th century, combines the best tropes (intellectualism, obsession, addiction, to name a few of Holmes's extremes, not even to mention his lack of affect) with satire of said hang-ups and the good old USA (Holmes wears a cap that says, "Make England Great Again").
In other words, it does a commendable job of evoking laughs out of the Laurel and Hardy playbook (see Stan and Ollie coming soon, also starring Reilly) while it takes a wider look at sexism and chauvinism, finding humor in men who can't abide a female doctor or who moon over a homely queen (Victoria, that is):
Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall): Shall we begin the autopsy? Watson: A woman doctor? Holmes: Impossible. Fortunately, we have a *real* doctor here. Watson: Would you like some heroin?
When Watson and Grace perform the autopsy, their desire comes through laughingly at the expense of the cadaver as if they were revising the eating scene in Tom Jones. The riff on an outlandish possibility of America having a president like the one we have a century later is rich with political commentary yet soft as a kitten's coat.
Those laughs just keep coming, perhaps none wittier than the extended Titanic motif, obnoxious in its disregard for the lost 1500 lives or that the film is set in 1892 and the fated boat built in 1902. Like the Producers' Springtime for Hitler, it works when by all rights it shouldn't.
Moriarty is present (Ralph Fiennes), still plaguing and sharpening Holmes, as well as a Mrs. Hudson (Kelly Macdonald) quite different from the stock housekeeper. See Macdonald in Puzzle if you want an idea of the actress's range.
With so many working parts, Holmes & Watson could be a blistering babble of bad humor. Instead, it's just what the doctor ordered for the hefty holidays. A "real" doctor, that is.
He can swim, he can fight, and that's about it. Great for kids, not so much adults.
"It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea . . . ." Edgar Allen Poe's Annabel Lee
While the women in the audience for character Aquaman/Arthur can ogle Jason Momoa's fit pecs, the men can enjoy the young Amber Heard 's beauty as Princess Mera and for a bonus, that of the nicely-put-together Nicole Kidman as the matriarch Atlanna. And that's all there is folks, at least for adults. For 8-year-old boys, explosions and fights excitingly occupy almost all the film. Aquaman/Arthur's reluctant struggle to find the magic trident (think a sword in a stone and claim his right to be king of Atlantis follows the usual mythical arc which includes fighting the evil brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), and finding the trident. Like the legendary King Arthur, this Arthur must wrest the trident from a monster, not a stone. Otherwise director James Wan can cut back to the lighthouse and Arthur's real father, Temuera (a fit Tom Curry), who waits patiently for the return from the sea of his mermaid wife, Atlanna. Usually some relief can be had in the CGI setting under water, but here the scenes are so dense with creatures and ruins and, yes, explosions, that you can't digest it all and may end up not appreciating any. Nor can you possibly give a pass for Willem Dafoe, the true actor, with Kidman, in the whole lot. Because I just saw Dafoe play a memorable Vincent van Gogh in Edge of Eternity, I am miffed that he would play the king's vizier, with one line worthy of his acting ability and not any another.
Jason Momoa, formerly of a Conan remake, is a physically-appealing choice, for previous iterations have him blonde, blue-eyed, and Thor like rather than the more interesting smoky-eyed, long-tressed surfer/biker dude here. Beyond the physical attributes, Momoa is given next-to-none smart lines or anything to help develop his character.
Oh, well, 8-year old boys win this round. Yet, a fetching Kidman can be its own reward for us caregivers.
Zimna wojna (2018)
Powerful drama beautifully photographed. It's tough out there in the Cold War.
"He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference." Zula (Joanna Kulig)
The heroine's tough words express the need for defiance in Cold War Poland. Cold War is a powerful film of dark and light, a love story set in Soviet dominated Poland, post WWII, that evokes the disjointed and desperate Poles trying to preserve their folk culture. Ironically, the Soviets watch over the songs that adjust to Soviet tastes and are obedient to its direction. In other words, the central love affair between very young Zula (Joanna Kulig) and older Wiktor Tomasz Kot) is punctuated by dislocation to Paris, return to Poland, and eventual tragedy.
Despite the disorienting nature of one country taken by another, the music, authentic or not, captures the Polish rural roots while it looks to tomorrow with rock 'n roll. The lovers are torn between the motherland and modernity, doomed to physically and figuratively wander to find a home and an enduring love.
The beauty of writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski's romantic drama is the couple's attempt to keep connected, for they are passionately in love. Along the way their music (she sings, he plays and conducts) and Poland's make a flawed attempt at preserving traditions and their loves. The crisp black and white is a perfect vehicle to exemplify the ambiguity of the political situation and the stark reality of the lovers' struggle to vanquish the forces aligned against their fulfillment.
Ben Is Back (2018)
In the current spate of young-men-in-addiction, this one reveals the horror at home better than any other treatment.
In the many treatments of troubled young men this year (Boy Erased, Beautiful Boy, Burning, to name ones I'm aware of), Ben is Back is the most affecting. Ben (Lucas Hedges) has bolted from his rehab clinic to spend time with his loving family. Although the film devolves into a quasi-thriller, the first half or so depicts with alarming clarity what it means to have a heroin addict in the house, even for a day. It's hell.
His Mom, Holly (Julia Roberts), is the one most acutely aware about hiding anything that her son might use to get off the wagon. Holly is one of the strong women characters for this year, reminding that Roberts has the chops to pull of a heavily dramatic role, as she did in Erin Brockovich and August: Osage County. Hedges, like Roberts, gives a performance of his much shorter lifetime.
The household stress is shifted when Ben's pet dog is stolen for ransom to lure him back into the dealer game. Director Peter Hedges (father of Lucas) has mom and son searching for the dog but also for a connection that can erase Ben's addiction. Finding the dog is the action to make the film come alive and to show the audience the scary world of drug dealers.
By moving the action to the search outside the home, Hedges has lost the demanding drama of family adjustment including the teen sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), the two younger siblings, and the tough-love Dad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance). The world of dealers we have seen before, but such a slice of upper-middle class turmoil has been too infrequently portrayed. Even Beautiful Boy didn't involve the audience as much as Ben is Back does.
By adding the dealer turn of the screw, Hedges has revealed the convoluted and pain-giving world of addiction, now planted firmly in homelife, where even the streets must compete for tragedy and despair. Although Ben is Back has formulaic elements and an unfortunate clustering with other young-men lost films this year, it stands alone in revealing the horror addiction unleashes at home
Bale alone worth experiencing in an otherwise powerful docudrama about power in the oval office.
"Whaddaya say?... I want you to be my VP. I want you, you're ma vice." George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell)
And so it goes. In the highly-entertaining and informative docudrama Vice, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) becomes the most powerful vice president in the history of the US presidency. As writer/director Adam McKay plays it, some humor applies because Bush's childlike persona evokes smiles even in dire circumstances such as the invasion of Iraq.
In its documentary element, Vice is an accurate history of the surprising rise of both Cheney and Bush, but the story is Cheney's. From his drunken early days to his sobering by wife Lynne, Cheney is nothing if not an adaptor with a highly-developed big-picture ambition, a politician who can see the gift that 9/11 gave to those like himself with global ambitions. Bale's impersonation of Cheney is stunning in both physical transformation and personality heft, an imitation that carries the personal stamp of an outsize personality.
In the personal element, Amy Adams's Lynne is just as smart and adaptable as I remember, a force behind her husband in a time when women could gain power mostly through their husbands. Lynne would publish books on American history and weigh in at pillow-talk time with sage reactions to Dick's challenges.
Crisply photographed and edited, McKay's story is immensely aided by an occasional tongue in cheek. Like our current time, if some governmental actions seem absurd, they are. When Vice runs credits midway, our confusion is alleviated when the story shows Cheney accepting an offer to visit the White House to discuss the vice presidency. In other words, his political life is by no means over.
Admittedly, at times the film moves too fast over history, lacking depth other docudramas embrace. The audience might have been better with more interaction between Cheney and Bush. Such good acting, when the chemistry is there, should be expanded:
Dick Cheney: "I believe... we can make this work." George W. Bush: "Hehehe!"
To teach and delight is a worthwhile motto for any filmmaker. Adam McKay fulfills that promise.
The Mule (2018)
Eastwood is alive and well in this satisfying little thriller.
"How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life." Tennyson, Ulysses
Although The Mule is riddled with cliché and improbability, you'd not be an ass to see it. Why? Because Clint Eastwood stars and directs in a small thriller, so bold and silly as to have Andy Garcia a drug king and Eastwood's 90-year-old Earl dispatch two heavy duty thugs. But the absurdity is not what this semi-sentimental family cum cartel caper affecting.
Earl is old as the hills and looks it; so much for romanticizing this Hollywood icon. Yet, his age and seeming enfeeblement add a gravity, along with the weight of the persona Eastwood brings after decades in front and behind the camera. When Earl speaks, it's not in flowery language, even though flowers are a prominent motif, but in experience-speak, making us aware that both character and director/star have little time left to mince words. He's a joy to watch as his Earl takes to being a drug mule to get money.
The theme of dedication to family occurs in almost too heavy a motif especially as Earl converses with DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper). Perhaps like Eastwood's many hours of golf at Pebble Beach and maybe too few at Malpaso Ranch, Earl also is painfully aware that he has forsaken family, in his case for his beloved flowers.
He's a late bloomer when it comes to reconciling with family for his absences, but come back he does. That return, the goal of the film, is couched in reality, so writers Sam Dolnick and Nick Schenk satisfy us with a slice of comeuppance and sentimentality not far from the way things ought to be.
I hope Eastwood doesn't do an Earl or for that matter a Candide, and go back to the flowers. The Mule shows him still to have it in front and back of the camera. Otherwise, he'd be truly "unforgiven" for forsaking his talents to old age:
"Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done . . . ." Ulysses
The Favourite (2018)
Witty and raucous, even the jaded will be delighted.
As a period, drama about baroque palace intrigue, The Favourite, concerning early18th century's British Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) and her courtiers, is a pleasant companion piece to the intrigue-laden Dangerous Liaisons. Only this time the Queen has her eye on her two close female attendants, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who has been with the queen since childhood, and Abigail (Emma Stone), a former lady arriving at the manor to be a lowly attendant. The principal location, the Jacobean Hatfield House estate in Hertfordshire, is a regal playground for shenanigans fit for pets in cages, like bunny rabbits.
Part of the perfection of this killer comedy is the set design with tapestries and furniture as ornate and beautiful as you'd expect in a fine museum. The palace is about as gorgeous as Blenheim, and the costumes are as plush as the draperies. In short, the mise en scene is to die for baroque. This attention to detail is what can be expected of director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster were memorably rich while spare at the same time. In Favourite the occasional use of a disorienting wide lens to survey the house and landscape while furiously moving is worthy of Orson Welles at this wildest.
However, it's always about the people, and this house of liaisons and deceptions is two hours of putdowns and poison; not a moment is dull. Abagail's co-opting the Queen's affection from Lady Sarah provides the spark for the fire between the two ambitious young ladies. Without being too obvious, the film speaks powerfully about the need for women then and now to employ serious wit to get around the male-dominated world. The battle has further significance because the Queen needs all the help she can get, and these ladies are ready and willing. Along for the contest are factions of British politics, vying for the Queen's attention to a real-world battle with the French.
As the credits roll, some of the film's eccentricity becomes evident: "Nude Pomegranate Tory" and "Fastest Duck in the City" remind how silly and yet shocking it can be. Notwithstanding the chapter headings like "The Mud Stinks," from Handel through Vivaldi to modernist Anna Meredith, the music counterpoints the raucous doings, which are accompanied by biting, crisp dialogue.
Through it all the determining factor is the off-balance Queen, whose whimsy could bring down a kingdom. The comparison can be made to contemporary times, where a chaotic White House begs for overthrow or at least complete dysfunction. History repeats, and if it must, we'd do well to look back a few centuries when palace intrigue appears highly amusing but through a camera lens, frightening.
One of the best of 2018.
Set in '70's Mexico City, Roma is a reverie by Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) evoking the period and the lifestyle of an upper-middle-class family and its servants. Although it is not a lyrical reminiscence, parts of its production represent levels of happiness or sadness without shouting the states.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young servant in a doctor's generous home in the Roma section, quietly loves the four children but watches as his wife becomes aware that he will not return from an alleged research job in Canada. As Cleo has her own man problems--the father of her soon due child has left her-the director suggests women are alone in this world, and it would appear, have only each other to rely on.
For the director reminiscer, the times are changing, just as students and police clash, a female doctor is Carla's obstetrician, and his wife finds substantial work to support the family. Meanwhile Carla loves the children, is a father substitute, and growing friend for the mother.
Cuaron laces his mise en scene with common symbols such as the dog feces constantly on the regularly-scrubbed garage floor and blinds as bars. Dogs roaming throughout the story provide the antidote to the immaculate residence, a sign that reality bites, despite the comfort of a home high above the living standards of most Mexicans.
Throughout the writer/director presents images reinforcing the hidden danger in modern living: martial parades through narrow streets, water down drains, ocean surf almost taking half a family, hospitals so antiseptic as to be surreal, a lover threatening, a Ford Galaxy scraped by too tight a garage, among other representations. Cuaron takes the simple daily life and infuses it with figurative dangers.
Cuaron's world when he grew up becomes more Darwinian with each recollection. Roma, however, is a beautiful evocation of a bygone era by a director who knows how to combine reality with art. One of the best films of 2018.
At Eternity's Gate (2018)
One of the best artist biopics ever.
"Never has there been a painter whose art appeals so directly to the senses." Albert Aurier
In At Eternity's Gate, director Julian Schnabel appeals directly to our senses, closing in on Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) to let us linger on his haunting eyes that see brilliant yellow flowers and his welcoming nostrils that pull in the Nature he saw as an emblem of beauty. Because Schnabel is an artist himself, the film, tracing the Vincent's time before his 1890 death, has abundant shots of his actual creation on canvas. Schnabel knows the territory, and it shows.
This is one of the finest artist biopics anyone will ever see, surpassing Lust for Life and Vincent & Theo. A beautifully photographed film with an Oscar-worthy performance by Dafoe, At Eternity's Gate deftly shows the insanity that stalked Vincent for most of his life. Although he believed darkness and a degree of madness accompany most worthwhile art, this film emphasizes the logistics of his finding the right light, for that is what he says he paints. Yet, the town of Arles in the south of France rejected his eccentricity, at one time polling to move him out by vote.
At his time in Arles, he created 75 paintings, not bad for a cranky artist whom the town despised. Thank goodness for Vincent's few friends like Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), who supported him spiritually and financially. His stints in the asylum are heartbreaking for us over 100 years later, knowing this insanity was an essential ingredient of his vibrant landscapes and intimate portraits.
Anyone who saw the gorgeous Loving Vincent, a frame by frame painted animation about his death, will want to see this work of art about an artist who is as real here as he is immortal. Relax and watch Dafoe channel the genius, whose ear slicing is left mostly out. Good, because the eyes have it in this artful interpretation.
One of the best films of the year.
"To me, the world is a mystery." Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo))
The protagonist of Burning is a naïve young Korean, Jongsu, shuffling through a life that gets incrementally more interesting in each scene but not passionate until pushed by a lovely girl or a slippery enemy. Then it burns.
As the opening quote signifies, Jongsu is a naïve but romantic sort, inarticulate when he is in conversation but soulful through his eyes. Daily he can be seen either in Seoul or tending the family farm in the town of Paj. Director Chang-dong Lee slowly sets up the subtle class conflict with two other characters, the three of whom create a romantic triangle that provides the heat Lee incorporates into a central fire motif. His influence by Faulkner's Barn Burning is alluded to in the film as both works emphasize the uncertainty of finding peace in a world that attacks his family while the family contributes to the lack of peace.
Meeting a childhood friend, attractive and aggressive Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon) after 16 years turns Jongsu more sociable but still introverted. The real mystery is what she wants in a relationship because her new friend, slick and manipulative upper-middle-class Ben (Steven Yeun), is interested in her as well ("He's the Great Gatsby," Yongsu says). It is confusing for introvert Jongsu to deal with his lust for her and to figure out Ben's complex motives. Jongsu also envies the Ben's carefree wealth. The three hander takes off when the three are jousting.
Director Chang-dong Lee keeps the slim plot going frame by frame until we have some idea many frames later that this film may turn out to be a thriller.
Jongsu is in an existential state of uncertainty, where he receives stimuli but gives little in return except to the cow and Haemi's cat, Boil, which doesn't materialize any time soon. The trial of his farmer dad in court provides insight into Jongsu's troubled family life and the contrast to that of the rich, suave, carefree Ben.
Additionally, an unreality motif prevails where Haemi may be telling the truth or making it up, such as with the cat or her childhood trauma. At least in the first part of the story before we begin to see reality biting its way into inexperienced Jongsu's life.
The importance of this Korean jewel of a mystery lies not in the plot but rather the psychological miasma of youthful fears and exploration, where life is a mystery because he is experiencing it now, as if he were creating his own identity minute by minute, and as if there was no history but family ties and the inchoate desires of a young man. Burning is an exemplary international film that should receive an Oscar nod.
Creed II (2018)
A thrilling sequel not just about boxing.
"It may not seem like it now, but... this is more than just a fight." Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan)
Creed II is indeed more than just about boxing. As in the previous seven Rocky-related films, it's all about the people and not just winning or losing matches, be they championships or not. Initially Creed II is about Adonis, son of the ill-fated Apollo Creed, having a child with singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and challenges about the baby's potential hearing handicap possibly inherited from mom.
That's the fight in the first part, not terribly exciting and tedious at times. When the film moves on to the re-match fight between Creed and Viktor Drago (mountainous Florian Munteanu), the film crackles with anticipation as Creed must defend his world title against an antagonist who covets the approval of his country and his family after his father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) lost to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) three decades ago.
Although Creed II could be taken as a tract about letting the past go, it is far more about having faith in oneself and putting family first. Lightly-experienced director Stephen Caple shows himself quite capable of filming fight sequences with ballet and emotional qualities not seen in rougher depictions such as in Raging Bull.
Co-writer Stallone, as he has done with previous Rocky stories, is adept at wringing sentimentality and wisdom out of the dialogue. Ivan laments to Rocky what his defeat cost him in Russia: "Because of you... I lose everything. My country. Respect. You ever see stray dogs in the Ukraine? They go for days without food. People spit on them, they are nothing. No home. Only will to survive... to fight." Stallone thus invests his antagonist with sympathy while he provides the reason for Ivan's fierce desire to win.
As the most recent iteration of the Rocky myth, Creed II is serviceable and at times poignant. The glue for this modest greatness is Sylvester Stallone, a writer of note and a one-note actor who nonetheless imbues the champ and his progeny with grit and hope.
Boy Erased (2018)
Dynamic and measured indictment of gay conversion therapy.
"Fake It Till You Make It"-Gary (Troye Sivan)
Gays have battles on every front today, and they are winning, even at times when faking being straight is mandatory for survival. If you don't believe me, see the stirring and engaging Boy Erased. Young Jared (Lucas Hedges) is sent to gay conversion therapy. Whether or not he is gay will be determined by his lengthy stay and their unsettling conversion methods.
The film takes a cautious approach, where initially both Jared and therapists slowly dance around their mutual ability to change his growing inclination to like men rather than women. As Hedges expertly plays Jared, he is buffeted not just by staunch Christians like his father (Russell Crowe playing a preacher and auto dealership owner) but also by himself as he seems to truly want to convert (There is a strong evangelical leaning for those interested in his change).
The value in this quiet indictment of conversion therapy is its non-threatening awareness of our inability to change a fundamental orientation like being gay. Mind you, 39 states still allow the therapy.
Mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman) can be trusted to most closely identify with our own discomfort about the severe indoctrination. Nicole Kidman beautifully plays the accommodating Southern mother until she can accommodate no more; she takes on the feminist mantle and gay-positive posture Jared so needs.
The eventual emphasis on Nancy's nurturing relationship with her son, as it eventually clashes with the good-old boy paternalism, is a confirming highlight of the right to indulge our natures, no matter how odd our choices may be. A mother's instincts are better than those of phony therapists and zealous clerics.
Joel Edgerton once again proves himself adept at directing (The Gift was an especially bright thriller in which he plays the villain). He takes us non-linear in and out of Jared's life that leads to his therapy. Well done considering the discursive flashback strategy has been overused lately. As if being a fine actor were not enough for Edgerton, he shows up here playing the lead therapist without portfolio.
This moving and instructive drama poses more questions than answers; however, what it does so effectively is to show the consequences of fooling around with Mother Nature.
One of the best heist films in years.
"What I've learned from men like my father and your husband is that you reap what you sow." Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell)
"And so, it goes," as Kurt Vonnegut said with a sense of inevitably for the underbelly of life. In the superior heist movie, Widows, set in the dicey south side of Chicago, a heist movie is more than a robbery. It condenses the seamy side of life into a stew of politics, sociology, and existentialism so as to relegate the actual heist to secondary status while the robbers reap a mixed bag of dangers and a few benefits for their reaping.
Although this is an action film, it serves the feminist perspective well as four wives face life without their mobster husbands, who have recently died in a robust heist gone terribly wrong. The ladies will pull a robbery using a template from Harry (Liam Neeson), late husband of Veronica (Viola Davis). The heist will be a sweet vengeance on those who assassinated the crooks and buy freedom from the bonds of servitude. In that sense, writer/director Steve McQueen is in territory familiar to his 12 Years a Slave.
Although violence is coin of the realm in this type of a thriller, character development defines it as an unusually dense and psychological drama, where each character works out a fate tied to a personality and too frequently engages a duplicitous enemy capable of emotional disguise almost impossible to deconstruct. For instance, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is practically forced into prostitution by her mother (Jacki Weaver), yielding psychological distress and potentially crucial information for the would-be burglars. Every action has a consequence, frequently ambivalent but always fraught with danger.
Widows is stylish and smart, a caper with profound racial and spiritual insights, making it entertaining and professional. "Now the best thing we have going for us is being who we are." Veronica
Family persuasively threatened from within.
"After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations." Oscar Wilde
At holiday time, you might elect to wait until after Christmas to see this melancholy, at times melodramatic, drama about a 1960's family on the cusp of change. While it is expertly directed and partially written by neophyte Paul Dano, it is a low-key, depressing depiction of a wife, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), ready to connect three years in the future with The Feminine Mystique.
Yes, she is what you would expect of a late '50's housewife: happy, subservient, loving, regretful. She regrets her indolent husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is affable enough but can't keep a job. She loves her 14-year-old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who observes the disconnect between parents and her mother's inevitable infidelity in her father's protracted absence.
Because the film is largely through Joe's point of view, this sometimes-melodramatic drama has a fresh perspective-the point of view of a child who witnesses the disintegration of his parents' love and his family unit. Dano essentially is directing a character much like his film persona: quiet, thoughtful, perplexed, and wary of the adult world. Joe's quiet insights anchor the film in realism and sympathy, helped enormously by Oxenbould's intensity and calm.
Besides the meticulous set design of the late '50's and early '60's, Dano and fellow writers, inspired by novelist Richard Ford (who often depicts Great Falls, Montana), capture the anxieties of rural America at that time (assassinations and full force Viet Nam imminent) and the incipient feminist movement waiting like Jeanette to burst forth with fury.
Although dialogue from Jeanette and Jerry is spare and low-key, Dano has infused the film with a knowing melancholy to make the audience aware that familial fragmentation comes not just at Thanksgiving but anywhere, anytime, even in remote Montana.
Beautiful Boy (2018)
A languid study in the banality of addiction as it especially affects loved ones.
"My son is out there somewhere, and I don't know what he's doing. I don't know how to help him!" David Sheff (Steve Carell)
And the answer is "You can't." Beautiful Boy biopic is the most depressing film in recent memory because a father, David, cannot pull his son, Nic (Timothee Chalamet), from the depths of addiction no matter how much love and money he expends. The descent has been chronicled in real life by journalist Dave in the titular bio and Nic in his, called Tweak.
The adapted screenplay, directed by Felix van Groeningen and written by him and others, is a sometimes-languid docudrama whose pervasive motif is the frustration of rehabbing one you love who does not want to be rehabbed. The film seems a recurring cycle of addiction, intervention, and re-addiction played out by the charming but aloof Chalamet and the tense, monotone Carell.
Except for two scenes of nearly deadly overdosing, the film has no riveting actions, just the semi-dramatic ones featured in the trailer. Otherwise. The audience can catch its breath in the journalist's breathtaking vacation home somewhere in the woods outside San Francisco or Nic's mom's (Amy Ryan) digs in LA. We aren't privy to how they could afford such upper-middle class luxury on his journalist's salary, or for that matter how Nic can leave them so often and support himself?
Could dad be sending him money despite Dad's growing awareness that son is using it to support his crystal meth addiction and more? No answer. The source books confirm Nic prostituted himself, but the film does not address the issue.
Therein lies one of the several challenges unmet: What is the source of the addiction, given all the flashbacks that don't seem to answer the question. Maybe that's the point-reasons are inscrutable while we are left with the victim's confession that the highs feel good: "I felt better than I ever had, so . . .I just kept on doing it."
Eventually, David realizes that until Nic wants to save himself, Dad will be powerless. There's a good lesson here that do gooder's may need to move on as the addicts relentlessly push their agenda. Even Christ has moments where he dusted off his sandals and moved on from the Pharisees and other malicious enemies without lingering to try to reform them.
He's God, after all, who will not interfere with the free will He gave to mankind. "Sometimes," as Steve McQueen intones in The Magnificent Seven, "you have to turn mother's picture to the wall and get out of town." Beautiful Boy is about moving on because the reality of addiction is banal and intractable for even the most impassioned parent.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
More misogynistic than merry, this comic thriller is a nifty entertainment with charming performances by McCarthy and Grant.
"I'm a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people." Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy)
With a truck load of high-octane Oscar-baiting American films like A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, it's refreshing to experience a small film like Can You Ever Forgive Me to remember what most European films are like: character driven. Those are films without much CGI and with much sparkling dialogue from actors who enjoy the words rather than the nominations that may follow.
The true-life story of writer and literary forger Lee Israel, a lesbian who had some success forging letters from literati like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward until she was caught, is embodied by Melissa McCarthy, playing an over-weight, misanthropic alcoholic who has written some well-received. biographies but now is in writer's block.
Tom Clancy is depicted at a Village party as saying the block was invented by writers to justify their laziness. So much for a sweet story about writing.
McCarthy will make you forget her brilliant comic turn and Oscar-nominated role in Bridesmaids as she shows the depressed side of a writer who nevertheless comes through with some witty and funny lines.
On her way to a good living forging she is aided by best friend and fellow alcoholic Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a character and actor playing admirable second-banana to Lee's sardonic reality. Together they are fun fraudsters until he turns state's evidence on her. When the two are together at a gay bar, Julius's (the actual bar where Lee hung out), I get whiffs of the old screwball comedy where insults quickly parried, are true comedy.
No grand moments appear in this little caper movie, just sweet moments between Lee, the booksellers she defrauds, her loveable cat, and naughty Jack. When she awkwardly deflects the romantic vibe from a sweet bookseller, McCarthy reveals a vulnerable misfit who is nonetheless charming in her loneliness. As I said, Europeans love this kind of slow, character-driven thriller.
You will, too.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
One of the nest musical docudramas ever.
"Now we're four misfits who don't belong together, we're playing for the other misfits. They're the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We're pretty sure they don't belong either. We belong to them." Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek)
This is a "Champion" musical biopic, a fine companion film this year to A Star is Born. The difference is more of Queen's music and less of the private anguishes of Star. Queen never before looked this regal with Freddie's gyrations and their music reminding us how much we loved the big songs, like those of ABBA, whose Mama Mia franchise made me hope also for a sequel to this stellar Queen musical.
Like the song Rhapsody, this film might have instilled doubts that it could have endured the long take (6 min for the song, over 2 hours for the film). Yet, Freddie stays vigorously, infusing each scene with the energy of memorably operatic rock. When Queen invites its rock-concert audience to sing along with We Will Rock You, there's little the cinema audience can do other than raise its arms and sing.
A disappointment of this estimable musical is the little time it gives to the other three Queen members, who are usually relegated to reaction shots. But, of course, the film and memories of the rock band are dominated by Freddie, who, like Mick, knew instinctively how to please an audience while he remained the epicenter of the action.
The downward arc of this romantic tragedy begins when Freddie admits to his band that he has AIDS. Once that point has been reached, director Bryan Singer lets us linger on the possibilities without Freddie's informing everyone. It's not a maudlin time, but a celebration of the time Freddie haws left.
When the band reconvenes, after Freddie's trying to go it alone, the Live Aid concert for Africa, 1985, proves a confirmation that, in the lineup of such greats as The Rolling Stones, Queen is every bit royalty. The re-creation of the concert is masterful.
Five years later Freddie is dead.
Without melancholy, and probably leaving many dark moments unaccounted for, Bohemian Rhapsody is a celebration of one of the great rock bands of the 20th century, and one of its gifted musical artists, Freddie Mercury.
This musical docudrama will rock you.