Thursday, December 27, 2018

My 10 best movies of 2018

As it turns out, 2018 was a better than average year for movies that provided both provocation and entertainment. I've never been big on lists but tradition finds film critics making 10-best lists and I've been doing them ever since I started reviewing back in the 1980s. So, without any undue fanfare, here's this year's list. You can use the search feature at the top left-hand corner of this blog to look up the original reviews for the mentioned movies. Even better, you can make your own list.

1. Roma

Director Alfonso Cuaron's memory movie rightly has been called a "masterpiece." In a movie that juxtaposes intimate moments with images that reveal a broader social context, Cauron's visually brilliant movie immerses us in the lives of a family and the live-in maid who keeps the wheels of the household turning. One of two movies on my list shot in black-and-white. (Cold War is the other.)

2. The Favourite

A trifecta of terrific actresses (Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) give gleefully malicious life to director Yorgos Lanthimos' look at corrupting ambition in the 18th century court of Britain's Queen Anne.

3. Shoplifters

This understated and quietly insinuating Japanese film from director Hirokazu Kore-eda introduces us to a family that shoplifts to eat and, in the process, involves us the lives of people who've been marginalized by the larger society.

4. Zama

Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) faces a spiral of decline in Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's biting examination of colonialism in South America and of the crushed hopes of a Spanish administrator who loses everything he values.

5. First Reformed

Director Paul Schrader's film examines the tormented soul of a pastor whose life stands on an altar built from personal guilt. Schrader's movie benefits greatly from a bracingly austere performance by Ethan Hawke as a man grappling with despair.

6. The Death of Stalin

For my money, director Armando Iannuci made the year's most scathing comedy, a look at the how the Soviet hierarchy jostled for position after the death of Joseph Stalin. It never would have occurred to me to cast Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, but Iannucci got it exactly right.

7. Black Panther

A landmark addition to the Marvel Comics galaxy that brought enthralling spectacle and a sense of ethnic pride to a overworked genre while adding to the resume of Chadwick Boseman, an actor whose work in movies -- from 42 to Get on Up to Marshall -- has been exceptionally strong and, I think, under-appreciated.

8. Sorry to Bother You

Director Boots Riley's vibrant satire takes on the world of telemarketing -- and much more. Yes, the movie tended to be a bit overstuffed, but -- with help from a lead performance by actor Lakeith Stanfield -- Sorry To Bother You took a mocking look at a cultural moment you easily might dub "2018."

9. Cold War

Director Pawel Pawlikowski follows his Oscar-winning Ida with this look -- shot in beautiful black-and-white -- at a long-running affair in which the lovers are buffeted by historical forces and their reaction to themn. Joanna Kulig gives a stunning performance as a singer whose spirit the barely can be contained by the movie.

10. First Man

I may be in a minority here, but I admired First Man far more than director Damien Chazelle's La La Land. Chazelle did a fine job of showing the insular determination it took to make Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) the first man to step onto the moon.

Honorable Mentions: Capernaum, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Sisters Brothers, BlacKkKlansman, and Birds of Passage.

Monday, December 24, 2018

RBG, champion of gender equality

On the Basis of Sex can't match RBG, a widely seen documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, perhaps because it opts to follow standard bio-pic moves.
If you want some insight into Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you'd do better to watch the recent documentary RBG than to immerse yourself in the dramatized account of Ginsburg's pre-Supreme Court life provided by On the Basis of Sex, a movie that makes no bones about lauding Ginsburg for being a groundbreaker against gender discrimination.

I'm not saying that Ginsburg doesn't deserve such accolades; I am saying that I wish the movie had delivered them in less routine ways.

Still, the value of On the Basis of Sex lies in its overall thrust; the movie reminds us that it wasn't all that long ago that even the most accomplished women had difficulty advancing within the legal establishment -- not to mention the society at large.

And, yes, I know that despite progress, gender equality remains an on-going battle.

Can we buy Felicity Jones as Ginsburg? I guess, but the documentary RBG proved that Ginsburg made a better Ginsburg than Jones, and as directed by Mimi Leder, the movie quickly becomes a catalog of the insulting ways professional women were treated during the late 50s and early '60s.

Working from a script by Daniel Stiepleman, Leder begins the story when Ginsburg enters Harvard Law School, an institution that in 1956 still harbored gender bias: The dean of the law school (Sam Waterston) believes a coveted place at prestigious Harvard Law could be better utilized by a bread-winning man.

At Harvard, Ginsburg received unwavering support from her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), a genial man who also was enrolled in Harvard Law and who never underestimated his wife's brilliance.

Ginsburg quickly emerges as a super-woman who can take care of a newborn, tend to her ailing husband when he's diagnosed with testicular cancer and excel as a student -- not only in her classes but when filling in for the recovering Martin.

Ginsburg ultimately transferred to Columbia University's law school because Martin landed a job in New York. After graduation, she found that most of the major Manhattan law firms had no interest in hiring a woman.

As a result, Ginsburg began teaching at the law school of Rutgers University in Newark. She and Martin eventually came across a case that opened a door to tackling gender discrimination. Ironically, it involved a male.

The movie spends a good deal of time on litigation involving Charles E. Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a Colorado man who had been denied a tax deduction for taking care of his ill mother on the grounds that caregiving roles were restricted to women.

Martin became involved because he was a highly regarded tax attorney with tons of court-room experience. But as the proceedings unfolded, Ruth Ginsburg found her legal voice. She took charge of gender elements in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

You'll learn a lot about this 1972 challenge of a tax-court ruling: how it was chosen, the various legal arguments it generated and why it connects to broader gender discrimination cases.

Leder also devotes time to Ginsburg's relationship with her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), a young woman whose views about institutional gender bias were more advanced than her mother's. Initially, Jane was skeptical about her mother's insistence that an unfair system could be changed from the inside.

Justin Theroux signs on as an ACLU lawyer who's eventually cajoled into allowing the organization to join forces with the Ginsburgs.

On the Basis of Sex never transcends by-the-book filmmaking. It's an okay big-screen bio that exemplifies what happens when a movie has an important story to tell but could have told it in a more compelling fashion.

A postscript: There are movies and then there's real life. Every follower of news knows that Justice Ginsberg recently was operated on for lung cancer. If RBG and On the Basis of Sex provide even a glimpse of Ginsburg's fortitude, it's difficult to imagine that she won't be around if someone decides to make a movie about the second half of her career.

A scattered 'Vice' falls short

Christian Bale scores as Dick Cheney and the supporting performances are mostly sharp, but director Adam McKay's look at the powerful veep offers too little fresh insight.

Regarded by many as the insidious power behind George Bush's empty presidential throne, Dick Cheney represents one of the strangest of political anomalies: Throughout his career, Cheney occupied a variety of power positions without ever revealing anything resembling an intriguing personality.

In excoriating Cheney, Vice, introduces us to an empty vessel of a man who tried (and mostly succeeded) at filling himself with power, either being near it or having it himself. It's a thesis of sorts, but Vice is too busy being clever to get much beyond that. At times, I wondered if the movie weren't more about its own comically rueful tone than it is about Dick Cheney.

Director Adam McKay delivers a free-wheeling, but not entirely fresh satirical indictment of Cheney and, only by inference, of many of the Neocons who supported similar positions.

McKay (The Big Short) leaves no doubt about where the movie stands. Vice opens with a howlingly drunk Cheney, as a young man, being pulled over by the cops. McKay then jumps to 9/11 as the vice president bypasses the president and gives the Defense Department authorization to shoot down any plane deemed a threat. This is followed by a quick view of real footage depicting a beleaguered America that would have fit nicely into a Michael Moore documentary.

The approach seems clear: Pieces of Cheney's career will be juxtaposed in ways that create a dizzying mosaic of bold strokes and blunt observations. Some work; some don't.

Still, audiences may want to see Vice for Christian Bale's impressive disappearing act of a performance as Cheney or for Sam Rockwell's amusing turn as an eager George Bush or for Steve Carrel's unashamedly conniving Donald Rumsfeld or for Amy Adam's no-nonsense portrayal of Lynne Cheney, the woman who evidently launched Cheney's career. She insisted that Cheney, then her fiancee, shed his wastrel ways after getting kicked out of Yale.

In his post-Yale days of the early '60s, Cheney had been spending his time in his home state of Wyoming working as a telephone lineman. When he got his second DWI, an embarrassed Lynne laid down the law; shape up or she'd find a more suitable partner. Cheney began to straighten himself out.

McKay's wild -- some might say "scattered" -- approach worked well in The Big Short, but it's overdone here with the movie racing through Cheney's resume: a stint as an intern to then-congressman Rumsfeld, a turn as Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff, 10 years in the House of Representatives, service as Secretary of Defense and, of course, an eight-year run as George W. Bush's vice president.

According to the movie, when Cheney took the vice presidential job he was determined to run the show. Desperate to have the more experienced Cheney as a running mate, Bush agreed to allow Cheney to take over the burden of matters such as foreign affairs and the military.

Vice takes a scalding -- and many will say appropriate -- view of Cheney's vice presidential activities, which include maneuvering the country into the Iraq war, justifying torture and ... well ... the list is long and, at times, as messy as McKay's movie.

McKay seems to have adopted a more-is-more approach to the material. At one point, Alfred Molina shows up as a waiter at a Washington restaurant who recites the menu, which for comic purposes has been turned into a checklist of Cheneyesque ideas. How about some "enhanced interrogation?" Care for some Guantanamo Bay?

The movie also features voice-over narration by Jesse Plemons and a last-minute reveal about why Plemons’ character is narrating the movie. At times, the narration makes it seem as if the movie is being read to us.

A set of fake end-credits rolls at a time when, or so the movie fantasizes, Cheney could have retired from public life in order to protect his gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) from unwanted scrutiny. Fantasy, yes, but the closest the movie comes to saying anything positive about Cheney involves its depiction of his supportive relationship with Mary. Cheney tries his best to stand by her, although expedience eventually wins out.

You'll probably see Bale's name on the short list for a best-actor Oscar. Prosthetics and weight gain help, but he has captured Cheney's incipient smile, his understated venality and the matter-of-fact attitude he seemed to bring to even the most outrageous suggestions. He was a big believer in the unitary executive theory that concentrated power in the president's hands and minimized the need for any balance of power. The idea seemed to come to its fullest fruition after 9/11, the point at which the movie begins to bog down in expositional chores.

What's missing from all of this? New insight into Cheney, a politician whose career was punctuated by heart problems that become more prominent in the latter part of the movie.

Vice tells Cheney's story and, by extension examines what can be seen as an on-going deterioration of American political life. But the movie's dramatic potential is undercut by its view of Cheney as a political hollow man driven only by ambition and a thirst for power: He's pretty much the same guy from start to finish.

There's entertainment in McKay's movie and a variety of sharp-edged comic performances, but by the end, you may find yourself vainly waiting for McKay to pull the thematic string that unifies his jigsaw of a movie and keeps Vice from falling onto the side of the ledger where disappointments are recorded.

Love in the time of racism

In If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins adapts a James Baldwin novel that pits the innocence of lovers against soul-crushing racism.

If you stop to think about it, you might be hard-pressed to come up with a long list of movies that portray love with tenderness, soul-deep commitment, and true devotion.

Among other things, a tender depiction of such a love is precisely what distinguishes If Beale Street Could Talk from normal Hollywood fare. director Barry Jenkins' follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight, has moments that are illuminated by the characters love for each other and by Jenkins' love for them.

But if Beale Street -- set in New York during the '70s -- only dealt with love, it would not be doing justice to the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name. If Beale Street Could Talk also assays the impact of racism on the innocence of two lovers who have known they should be together since childhood.

Tender feelings collide with harsh realities that test the devotion of a young man and woman who want little more than to live, raise a family and continue loving each other.

The casting of the couple obviously becomes crucial in a movie such as Beale Street and Jenkins' has done well. Stephan James portrays Alonzo, a.k.a. "Fonny," a 22-year-old with ambitions to make sculptures from wood. KiKi Layne portrays Tish, Fonny's 19-year-old fiancee and also the story's narrator.

Jenkins invites us to fall in love with this sweet couple and we do, but he also plans to break our hearts. Tish is pregnant and it's entirely possible that Fonny will be in jail when his child is born.

Set up by a racist cop (Ed Skrein), Fonny faces a false rape charge. Tish fights to clear his name. She knows that the Puerto Rican woman who identified Fonny in a line-up did so in a confused panic. Fonny wasn't even in the vicinity of the crime.

The movie contextualizes the relationship between Fonny and Tish by bringing their respective families into focus as it shifts between the present with Fonny awaiting trial in jail and the past in which Fonny and Tish developed their relationship.

Fonny's mother (Regina King) supports her pregnant daughter; her father (Colman Domingo) also makes his love for Tish clear; he understands that he's going to have to get involved with some hustling to raise money for Fonny's defense.

In an early scene, the two families meet and sparks fly. Fonny's religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis,) disdains Tish and treats her as a wanton woman who's ruining her son's life. Fonny's father (Michael Beach) takes a different view. He hauls off and belts his wife in the kisser, a slap that turns a comic scene into something harsh and harrowing.

Perhaps Baldwin was trying to highlight poles of belief within the black community: staunchly religious conservatism vs. love-infused tolerance, the latter born of an understanding about what's needed to carry on.

Brian Tyree Henry turns up as an old friend of Fonny's who has just been released from jail and who can't shake the emotional damage of incarceration. He didn't belong in jail any more than Fonny will.

Jenkins respectfully extends scenes to allow the actors to live within them, but some of them go on too long and you begin to feel the movie's length.

Maybe it doesn't matter because If Beale Street Could Talk doesn't feel rooted in a specific time and place as much as it feels like an extension of imagination lodged in an essential moment -- one built around a deep understanding of harsh American realities and an unconquerable capacity for hope and survival.

If Beale Street Could Talk poses a heartfelt and heartbreaking question: Why must two lovers pit their happiness against a world that doesn't want to give them a chance? That sounds like the trailer for a romance novel, but -- in this case -- it's an indictment of racism that tries to crush the sweetness out of everyday life.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Silly fun -- but only for a while

Jason Momoa plays Aquaman with ease, but the movie is overstuffed and too long to sustain the enjoyment.

For perhaps a quarter of its length, Aquaman proves enjoyably silly, but -- for me at least -- enjoyably silly eventually morphed into an impatient question: Would this display of CGI magic, preposterous plotting and accumulating episodes ever end?

Where that point is reached for you in a two-and-a-half hour movie -- or if it's reached at all -- depends on how much-sustained entertainment you find in this overstuffed water ballet.

The origins story for Aquaman has been placed in the hands of director James Wan (The Conjuring), who creates a DC Comics extravaganza that immerses us in an underwater sea world full of dazzling colors, improbable technologies and a battle over who will rule Atlantis, the sunken city of myth.

A reluctant Aquaman (Jason Momoa) becomes a contender for the throne; the son of a surface-dwelling earthling (Temuera Morrison) and an ocean queen (Nicole Kidman), Momoa's character is presented as a longshot for success.

Also vying for the top job: King Orm (Patrick Wilson), another son of Kidman's Atlanna. Put Orm in the arrogant jerk category. He believes he should be king because of his pure bloodlines. Atlanna married his father after leaving her surface-bound husband -- for good and noble reasons, of course.

Momoa's Aquaman boasts a strong physique and a nonchalance about his various battles with evil, which begin with an attack on a group of pirates led by a vicious character named Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

I'm not going to try to elaborate on the undersea world because it requires blind acceptance about such matters as how beams of fiery light exist in the depths of the ocean, how residents of Atlantis breathe without gills and ... oh well ... why go on listing all that's silly in this cornucopia of silliness?

Lest Aquaman become lonely, he's accompanied on most of his adventures by Mera (Amber Heard), a redhead who initially regards him as a hopeless case, but who eventually and unsurprisingly accepts him as the rightful king of Atlantis.

The supporting cast finds Dolph Lundgren playing King Nereus, an underwater noble who must decide where to place his loyalties. Willem Dafoe does Yoda-like duty as Vulko, an Atlantis adviser who becomes Aquaman's mentor.

Characters are made to seem as if they're floating in the depths of the sea, their hair flowing upward. How anyone gets a haircut in Atlantis remains one of the movie's many mysteries.

If you're after action, Aquaman tries (boy does it ever) not to disappoint. Wan has included everything from martial-arts combat to battles with monsters to trident vs. trident mega-bouts.

Did I mention that Aquaman's quest sends him a search for a trident that only a true king can possess, a plot device that takes the movie to the Sahara Desert, as well as to a small coastal town in Sicily?

I also forgot to mention that Aquaman's given name is Arthur and that the great triumphant moment of the film centers on Arthur's emergence as Aquaman, trident raised over his sculpted torso in comic-book glory.

Watching the movie is like reading a variety of Aquaman comics in succession, with a little ecological concern tossed in for good measure. At some point, though, you may get bored and wish you could put the books down and reach for a copy of Batman.
There's plenty of visual invention on display, but the eye can't totally silence a question from the mind: How much underwater spectacle does an Aquaman movie need before we start to drown in it?

A more human ‘Transformers’ movie?

Yes, it's got some heart, but Bumblebee still has one foot -- or at least a couple of toes -- in the Transformers junkyard.

We've seen movies about girls and dogs and girls and horses. Now, we've got one about a girl and her lovable robot companion. The distinguishing factor: the robot companion -- actually a robotic life form -- is an Autobot that landed on Earth from the planet Cybertron. This particular Autobot is supposed to protect people while hiding from the evil Decepticons, robots who want to destroy all of Autobot civilization.

If you know what I'm talking about, you're already familiar with the Transformers movies, noise fests staged with ear-splitting competence by the director and action king Michael Bay.

The time, Travis Knight ( the animated Kubo and the Two Strings) takes over the directing chores turning Bumblebee into an origins story that explains how the Autobots arrived on Earth.

More importantly, screenwriter Christina Hodson establishes an emotional connection between an alienated teenager (Hailee Steinfeld) and the Autobot, a robot she finds in a junkyard disguised as a beat-up, yellow VW Beetle. Before being dubbed Bumblebee by Hailee's Charlie, the Autobot is known as B-127. He's in bad shape having been deprived of his voice and his memory in an opening-picture battle with Decepticons.

Set in 1987, the movie makes use of '80s music and follows a familiar arc in which the US military -- under the command of a gung-ho soldier played by John Cena -- predictably picks the wrong side in the fight between Autobots and Decepticons.

Amid additional '80s bric-a-brac -- from an image of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club to VHS tapes -- Charlie emerges as an outsider with skills: She knows how to work on cars, is upset about the recent death of her father and in more or less constant argument with her mother (Pamela Adlon).

Aside from Bumblebee, Charlie's only real friend is the kid next door (Jorge David Lendeborg Jr).

Scenes in which Charlie and a frightened Bumblebee -- the sweetest hunk of metal yet to find its way into a movie -- form their bond are well done and Steinfeld gives the movie a strong female center, but I don't want to get too excited about a movie that feels as if it's trying to further lower the age of Transformer fans while giving new life to a series that simply won't go away.

Yes, Bumblebee has a more human feel than its five previous predecessors, but it’s still aligned with its five predecessors, and let's be honest: In Bumblebee smashing things becomes an inevitable accompaniment to mending hearts.

A shattered man's world of dolls

Steve Carell portrays a man obsessed with World War II in Welcome to Marwen.
Director Robert Zemeckis has devoted a substantial portion of his career to films that play with cinematic convention. We’re talking about movies ranging from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to The Polar Express to Beowulf to A Christmas Carol. In Welcome to Marwen, Zemeckis continues his fascination with artificial worlds. Throughout the movie, he shifts from "normal" big screen reality to a world full of dolls that resemble characters in the movie's real-world story.

Welcome to Marwen is based on the life of Mark Hogancamp, a photographer whose work consists mostly of taking photos in and around Marwencol, a fictional miniature Belgian town he built in his backyard and populated with dolls and other toys.

If that sounds familiar, it could be for two reasons: Hogancamp’s photographs have been featured in several New York galleries and Hogancamp’s life was the subject of a fascinating 2010 documentary by Jeff Malmberg.

Those who’ve seen Malmberg's documentary already know Hogancamp’s backstory. In 2000, he was severely beaten outside a bar in upstate New York by five thugs who objected to him talking about the enjoyment he got from wearing women’s shoes. Hogancamp was in a coma for 40 days, lost all memory of his personal life prior to the assault and then began to channel his anxieties and rage into World War II tableaus in Marwencol. He had a particular fascination with battling against Nazis and his fantasies took on a pulpy, comic-book quality.

So what was left to say after the documentary? As it turns out, not much.

In Welcome to Marwen, the stories that take place inside of Marwen (all enacted with dolls that resemble characters from Hogancamp's life and voiced by actors) aren't all that interesting and the overall story vacillates between being creepy and heart-warming, never quite making up its mind which map to follow.

Using his terrible beating as an explanation, Carell portrays Hogancamp as a shattered man who long ago lost the ability to read social signals. He's briefly enamored with a new neighbor (Leslie Mann), mistaking her kindness for romantic interest.

Meritt Wever plays the owner of the local hobby shop Hogancamp frequents and Diane Kruger provides the voice of Deja Thoris, a witch-like figure who haunts Hogancamp and his Marwen alter-ego figure, Cap'n Hogie.

Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Caroline Thompson, Zemeckis takes a stab at illuminating serious issues involving hate crimes, personal freedom (symbolized by Hogancamp's preference for wearing women's high-heeled shoes) and tolerance.

Alan Silvestri's score might have been better suited to a magical fantasy; here, it seems at odds with Hogancamp's story.

I wondered if Tim Burton, a director more willing to lean into weird material, might have been a better choice for this story. Zemeckis largely remains outside of Hogancamp's world, turning us into observers.

Welcome to Marwen offers some clever visual touches but never makes it clear what we're supposed to feel about Hogancamp: Is he a crackpot? An emotionally crippled victim? An artist? The movie didn't need to answer all (or any) of those questions, but unlike the documentary, I left without wanting to give them much further thought.

A mom tries to save her drug addicted son

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges give strong performances but Ben is Back can seem like a movie divided against itself.

Ben is Back, the story of a mother dealing with her son's drug addiction, proves observant and smart -- until a mid-picture plot twist alters its course.

A convincing Julia Roberts portrays Holly Burns, a mother who’s shocked to see her addict son Ben (Lucas Hedges) make an unannounced visit to the family's upstate New York home. Ben, who's supposed to be in rehab, claims that his sponsor endorsed the trip.

After many attempts to deal with Ben's addiction, Holly is happy to see her sober son, but she'd be a fool not to worry. Hadn't everyone agreed that Ben would complete his rehab before he returned to the family? Could this visit be a prelude to yet another failed attempt by Ben to pull his life together? Hasn't Ben already put his family through enough hardship?

Director Peter Hedges, Lucas' father and author of the screenplay, deftly reveals the family dynamics revolving around Ben's unexpected return.

Ben's stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) is appropriately skeptical, as is Ben's younger sister (Kathryn Newton), another child from Holly's previous marriage. Two children from Holly's current marriage are too young to feel anything but delight at the appearance the playful big brother who treats them with obvious affection.

Ben's return prompts tension but Vance's Neal and Holly negotiate a deal: Ben can stay for one day. There are conditions: He must agree to drug testing and he's never to leave Holly's sight.

Holly's love for her first-born is palpable. She wants to believe that her faith in Ben can bring him back from the brink of self-destruction. Hedges' performance makes it clear that Holly isn't entirely deluded. Ben has many admirable qualities: He's smart, capable of love and seems open and realistic when talking about his addiction.

During a particularly stressful moment, he even insists on attending a meeting of fellow addicts so that he can talk through his anxieties. Holly goes with him.

This portion of the movie gives Hedges an opportunity to suggest some of the damage that Ben has left in the wake of his addiction, most notably his relationship with the mother (Rachel Bay Jones) of one of his former girlfriends, a young woman he introduced to drugs.

The movie shifts gears when the family returns home from church on Christmas Eve and discovers that the house has been visited by intruders who've made off with the family dog.

Ben knows that the intruders want to scare the family and that they are connected to his former life.

Hedges' screenplay then finds another gear: Holly accompanies Ben as he makes contact with people from his worst days and what has been a carefully observed family drama takes on a new dimension.

Roberts and Hedges do their best to sell this part of the movie -- encounters with a string of unsavory types -- but I found Holly's behavior difficult to buy, perhaps because the screenplay doesn't adequately explore the impact of her persistence on the rest of the family. The effect she's having on Vance's mostly patient character is clear, but also underexplored.

There's no faulting the work of either Roberts or Hedges. Hedges, also seen in the recently released Boy Erased, understands and makes real the duplicitous ways of an addict, but the movie eventually pushes the larger family dynamics aside to concentrate its focus on mother and son.

It's possible to think of Ben is Back as a kind of companion piece to Beautiful Boy, another movie about a parent -- in that case, a father -- trying to cope with a son's addiction. The release of the two movies at roughly the same time may be coincidental but clearly suggests that middle-class addiction has become a national preoccupation.

Based on a true story, Beautiful Boy tries to pull its drama from reality; Ben is Back takes a fictional approach to finding its truth. In the end, neither movie totally succeeds, but both have moments that tear at the heart.

'Bird Box': a wan helping of horror

Sandra Bullock joins the post-apocalyptic fray in Bird Box, a movie about a woman trying to find safety for herself and two small children. The situation is dire because the world has been ravaged by a lethal menace that, following current movie fashion, never is really defined. All that's clear is that those who have the misfortune of looking at the world will die, mostly by suicide. Normal vision has become fatal. Director Susanne Bier quickly gets down to business: Bullock's Malorie and her two charges (Vivien Lyra Blair and Juian Edwards) must negotiate a dangerous river to reach their only hope for safety -- and they must accomplish this goal while wearing blindfolds. The movie shifts between this river trip and events that occurred five years earlier when a flight to safety brought a pregnant Malorie into the home of Douglas (John Malkovich). There, a variety of refugees from the ill-defined terror try to survive. These include another pregnant woman (Danielle Macdonald) and a veteran (Trevante Rhodes) who leads an expedition (via GPS) to obtain groceries. The tensions in the house unfold in reasonably predictable fashion until the narrative catches up with itself and rejoins Malorie's river expedition. Comparisons with the far better A Quiet Place seem inevitable with Bird Box coming up a loser in any game of compare and contrast. Bullock gives a strong, fiercely determined performance; the rest of the cast is in equally good form. But in trying to surpass generic horror, Bird Box achieves only limited success.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Mary Poppins makes a fine return

Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda lead the way in this very belated sequel.
The original Mary Poppins movie — the one starring Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews — is so old I hadn’t even graduated from college when it first reached the nation's screens. The year: 1964.

Look, I'd be lying if I told you that I have especially fond memories of the original, which many have come to regard as a classic of their childhoods. I remember taking my then young kids to see it during one of its revivals, considering it a task -- shall we say? -- of obligation and endurance.

Turns out the original had a tipsy spirit and some memorable musical moments. In short, a good time was had by all, even me. I never gave it a second thought nor did I inscribe Mary Poppins in my book of movie memories.

What I'm trying to say is that had no one thought to make a new Mary Poppins movie, you would not have found me rending any garments on gnashing any teeth. I say all this by way of an admission that I'm not an aficionado of all things Poppins.

With all that in mind, on to the new movie, Mary Poppins Returns, which stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and has been directed Rob Marshall, still best known for the movie version of the musical, Chicago (2002), which won a best-picture Oscar.

I'd have to say that Return is fine for what it is; i.e., a family-oriented fantasy designed to make its audience feel good or at least better about whatever woes they brought to the theater.

Ben Whishaw plays the now-grown Michael, a widowed artist who's trying to take care of his three kids. He has help from his housekeeper (Julie Walters) and from his sister (Emily Mortimer), a woman with a social conscience. She protests on behalf of downtrodden workers, a category that I presume does not include film critics.

Movies such as Return thrive on melodrama and Mary Poppins Returns digs up one of the hoariest bits of melodrama available. The family is about to lose its believed home to a bank run by a smooth-talking official (Colin Firth) whose behavior ultimately proves (pardon the use of a mildly archaic word) "dastardly."

Meanwhile, the clock ticks. Poor Michael has five days to pay off a loan he's taken on his house. Devastation looms.

Devotees of the first movie will want to know that Van Dyke makes a brief appearance and that the new cast seems largely up to snuff.

Not everyone agrees that Emily Blunt makes a great Mary Poppins, but I found little reason to fault a performance that finds Mary, open umbrella in hand, descending from the sky to help solve the problems of a troubled English family.

In Blunt's hands, Mary dispenses magic with the unadorned simplicity of a cop directing traffic. She has no interest in having anyone question her abilities. She's a kind-hearted drill sergeant of enchantment.

And for my money, Blunt sells what might be the movie's most touching song, The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Miranda's performance as lamp-lighter hinges on his ingratiating and ever-present smile. Miranda, of Hamilton fame, begins the musical parade with a number called Underneath the Lovely London Sky, a sigh of a song and a tone-setter for what's to follow. He also performs one of the movie's more elaborate production numbers, Trip a Little Light Fantastic. It involves multiple bicycles.

Whishaw plays a father mired in undigested grief, the kids are appropriately cute and the musical numbers may make you smile even if they don't prove as memorable as the songs from the original; i.e., tunes such as Chim Chim Cher-ee or A Spoonful of Sugar. The songs for Return were written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray).

Marshall knows how to stage production numbers and also makes use of animation in a sequence in which kids take a bath and are transported to the ocean for another musical number. Marshall even includes a show-stopping moment from Meryl Streep, who plays Mary's cousin and who turns her musical number (Turning Turtle) into a memorable comic cameo.

Few of the youngsters who are taken to Returns aren't going to spend much time making comparisons to the original, but they should be able to get lost in the movie's carefully considered production design and an abundantly clear desire to entertain.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A 'Spider-Man' that's long on creativity

A Marvel story that's (gasp!) actually animated and better for it.
Who knew? In the complex and baffling expanse of comic-book realities, a Spider-Verse awaits. We're talking about alternate universes or dimensions where many Spider-Men assume their crime-fighting burdens. To make Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse even more intriguing the familiar Spider-Man -- a.k.a. Peter Parker -- almost immediately falls victim to Kingpin, a gargantuan villain whose girth seems to represent a lifetime of accumulated evil.

Oh well, those of us who grew up before the current wave of Marvel comics broke across the culture may not have known all this, but it probably comes as no surprise the legions of fanboys who were nurtured by Stan Lee's cornucopia of comics.

As if to bow to the origin of all things Marvel, this edition of Spider-Man is animated by a gifted team that wisely has given the movie the texture of an actual comic book with visible Ben-Day dots, panels, and occasional captions.

It's a bit early in the review to introduce a footnote, but for the record: Chris Pine gives voice to the original Peter Parker, who, as mentioned, succumbs early. Liev Schreiber voices Kingpin.

Kingpin, by the way, has an associate named Dr. Octopus (Kathryn Hahn). She has something to do with the technology that allows the various multi-verses to mingle -- or some such.

Now back to the review:

This time, the main character carries a welcome ethnic banner. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has black and Hispanic origins. Miles feels a little out-of-place at the private school to which his parents (dad is a cop) have sent him.

School aside, Miles starts the movie as an ordinary Brooklyn kid. He transforms into Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider. The bite occurs in an abandoned subway station that Miles visits with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), a free-spirited guy who Miles idolizes and who serves as a counterpoint to Miles conventional father.

A variety of other characters pop into the movie from other dimensions. They include Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Peter Porker (John Mulaney) and Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage). Porker, by the way, functions as a cartoon addition to this gang of Spidery characters and has an inspired alternate name: Spider-Ham.

You may find yourself blinking in mild but amused disbelief at the alternate universe Peter Parker, a Spider-Man who seems to have aged a decade and who has acquired a paunch.

All of these Spider-folks add to an approach that sets the movie several cuts above the expected. Getting rid of live action has resulted in one of the most creative Marvel movies yet with a plot that centers on the alternate-universe characters trying to return to their home dimensions.

My appreciation for the movie's spirit of invention never wavered; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse dazzles the eye and deservedly has put itself into contention as the year's top animated movie.

Credit goes to the directing team of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, as wells as to screenwriter Phil Lord, who produced with his partner Chris Miller. And don't forget the legion of animators and effects specialists who have created this amazing contraption. Sitting through the end credits will tell you it takes more than a village to make this kind of movie; it takes an army.

Alfonso Cuaron's masterful remembrance

No point beating around the bush, Roma is the year's best movie.
I have a suggestion that might enhance your appreciation of Roma, the Alfonso Cuaron movie that rightly has been hailed as a masterpiece. If you possibly can see the movie, shot in black and white and making exquisite use of a wide-screen format, do so. Then go to Netflix and watch the movie in the original Spanish with the sound off. I think you'll see just how much of Cuaron's semi-autobiographical memory movie communicates visually.

Sounds obvious, I know. But think about how much most movies rely on dialogue, music and flashy edits to get their point -- if they have one -- across. Cuaron, who also served as the movie's cinematographer, has made an image-rich movie that relies on his camera to capture the lives of characters and expand beyond that to provide insight into the society in which they live.

Working at peak form, Cuaron, at one point, approaches a single street as a canvas, gliding his camera along its length in a way that brings the chaos and vibrancy of Mexico during the 1970s to life.

Mexico City provides the stage on which Cuaron sets the story of the household in which he presumably grew up. His neighborhood was called Roma, a slice of the city in which residents lived behind locked gates and employed help to keep their households running.

The movie's amazing opening shot, the slow reveal of an airplane reflected in pools of water from a maid's daily cleaning of the family's courtyard -- suggests faraway life, something out of reach for the movie's main character, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). She's the maid who keeps the machinery of the house oiled. Her duties include everything from cleaning up dog poop in the courtyard to doing laundry by hand on the roof to comforting the family's four children.

The meticulously kept downstairs of the house contrasts with the messy upstairs, where most of the actual living takes place. It quickly becomes apparent that trouble looms. When the head of the house (Fernando Grediaga) arrives home, he barely squeezes his over-sized Ford into its courtyard parking spot. It's as if something about him has outgrown the life inside.

It's not long before, Dad -- a physician by trade -- leaves home on a "business" trip. He doesn't return and Mom (Marina de Tavira) begins to unravel. Cleo also has an experience with a fleeing male.

She dates a young man (Jorge Manuel Guerrero Mendoza) who happens to be the cousin of the boyfriend of another of the household's maids (Nancy Garcia). After Cleo and Mendoza's Fermin have sex, he emerges from the bathroom naked and does a bizarre martial arts demonstration that serves as a kind of stark primer on Mexican machismo.

It's immediately clear that Fermin isn't going to win any sensitivity contests. Later, Cleo tells him, as they're necking in a movie theater, that she's pregnant; he excuses himself to go to the bathroom and never returns.

An awful lot happens during Roma, but the movie never feels stuffed. Not only do we become intimately acquainted with the household in which Cleo works, but we're immersed in events of the day - from an earthquake to student protests that turn violent and serve as a prelude to the movie's most devastatingly painful scenes.

At one point, Mom decides to take the family to visit rich friends for a New Year's celebration. Cuaron then assembles a sequence that includes hunting, pistol firing and some of the most bizarre examples of taxidermy yet to be seen on film.

Suddenly, we're in Fellini territory, but we've arrived without self-conscious attempts at mimicry or insider gestures. It's all part of the fabric that Cauron weaves and which includes a visit to the poor part of the city where Cleo attempts to reconnect with the vanished Fermin.

Cuaron's juxtaposition of the bizarre and the quotidian never feels forced and Roma unfolds with such apparent effortlessness that its truth seems unquestionable.

When the family takes a beach vacation, Cuaron does stunning work as his camera follows Cleo into the waves. I won't say more about what she's doing, but -- as is the case with much of the movie -- I watched with amazement at the effect Cuaron achieves.

Cleo genuinely loves the children of the household and they clearly love her. Of course, there's an inherent inequality in the relative positions of employer and employee that adds a painful undercurrent to everything that transpires.

Cuaron obviously is one of the boys in this on-screen family, but Roma isn't about children or even childhood; it's a movie about a moment and the people who lived it.

So back to where I started. I encourage you to see this movie twice. Get the lay of the land, know the story and then see it without sound so that you can fully appreciate the wonder of Cuaron's camera work, the exactitude of his eye and the clarity of a heart that understands the deep sadness and transient beauty of fading time.

A royal rivalry that needed more fire

Mary Queen of Scots can't bring its intriguing ingredients to a dramatic boil.

Mary Queen of Scots tells a story that drips with political intrigue, religious strife, personal betrayals, and even murder.

Despite all that and despite a couple of winning performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, the movie too often fails to bring its many volatile ingredients to a dramatic boil.

The story centers on the rivalry between Ronan's Mary and Robbie's Elizabeth I. Newly widowed at 18, Mary arrives in Scotland from France, where she evidently learned the art of tolerance. Surrounded by her all-male gaggle of courtiers, Elizabeth fears that Mary won't be content to rule over Scotland, but will try to take over her throne, as well.

Director Josie Rourke, working from a screenplay by Beau Willimon (House of Cards), alternates between the 16th-century British and Scottish courts, making clear -- in somewhat interminable fashion -- the contrasts between the two women.

As for those differences: Mary is Catholic; Elizabeth, a Protestant. Mary seems the more natural and fresh-faced of the two with Elizabeth, who contracts a terrible case of the pox during the movie, looking as puffed and powdered as a show poodle.

Ronan brings youth, intelligence and plenty of backbone to the role of Mary. Robbie's make-up threatens to overwhelm her performance, but she manages to allow real feelings to creep through.

In what might be taken as a bow to current sensibilities, both Mary and Elizabeth preside over multi-racial 16th-century courts. There's also gay sex, oral sex and lots of grumbling courtiers, some of whom make an impression, notably Guy Pearce's William Cecil, an advisor to Elizabeth and an all-around stuffed shirt.

James McArdle portrays Mary's hirsute half-brother. Ismael Cruz Cordova plays a gay man who likes to hang with Mary and her crew of gentle-ladies and who also has a roll in the hay with Mary's second husband (Jack Lowden). David Tennant portrays John Knox, a Scottish zealot who rails against Mary's Catholicism and what he sees as her sexual abandon.

For those unfamiliar with British history, the movie makes it clear from the outset how all this back and front-stabbing will conclude. Rourke begins with Mary's impending beheading and works her way back through the story.

Scotland looks far more primitive than Elizabeth's London court but the movie's glamor has more to do with the two queen's architectural hairstyles than with any aristocratic splendor.

And it may be a nod to current standards to suggest that Mary and Elizabeth shared a sisterly fate as the men of their respective courts attempt to push them around.

Mary Queen of Scots doesn't have the musty feel of period-bound drama but it doesn't spring to vivid life, either. So, no hails for this queen.

By the way, and of no relevance whatsoever, I'm waiting for someone to use this title as inspiration for another movie, namely Mary Scot of Queens Tell me you aren't ready for it.

Pop, violence and an attempt to say something

Powerful moments in Vox Lux don't quite add up.
Director Brady Corbet's Vox Lux might be a case of a movie taking a bite out of a big subject but failing entirely to digest it. Filled with pretentious title cards (Act I: Genesis 2000-2001, for example), the movie begins with a school shooting and propels itself toward a portrait of a pop star who's having a bad moment, perhaps after a long series of bad moments involving sex, drugs, and alcohol and trauma dating back to her high-school years.

Corbet opens the film with a riveting display of violence that takes place in the music room of a Staten Island high school. After suffering grave wounds, high-schooler Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) writes a mournful song with her older sister (Stacy Martin). Because she's seen as a bona fide national victim, Celeste's song becomes a sensation.

Celeste's career rises from her horrific experience -- with help from a manager, played by Jude Law with an attitude of hard-boiled pragmatism.

Cassidy does a fine job of showing how Celeste -- with help from her sister -- begins to taste the high life that accompanies stardom. Maybe the movie never should have left those teen years in which Celeste still hasn't found her footing.

Natalie Portman takes over the movie's second half as the grown Celeste, who we meet on the day she's supposed to play a concert in her hometown. Natalie is having an awful day for a variety of reasons: She's arguing with her sister, trying to come to terms with her teenage daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy) and meeting with a press corps that's bound to ask questions about the connection between one of Celeste's videos and another violent incident, a mass shooting on a beach in Europe.

Corbet plunges violence, celebrity, and cultural degradation into a jumbo-sized package as the movie searches for hyper-meanings. But the movie feels most convincing when it isn't reaching for thematic gold but making smaller observations, like how a journalist interacts with Celeste after being warned by a record company executive to stay away from certain subjects.

In a scene between Celeste and her daughter in a Manhattan diner, Corbet's camera generates the kind of uncomfortable immediacy that makes us a third party to their conversation.

But Portman's version of Celeste -- complete with leather jacket, baggy jeans, a New York accent and tons of attitude -- seems forced. To me, her performance screamed of striving more than it suggested a believable character.

Corbet's style, which comes on like fragments from a vivid dream, can't compensate for what I saw as the movie's lack of clarifying viewpoint about the amorphous web that's woven from elements of fame, violence and pop culture.

With Celeste vying for the title of the year's most unpleasant character, Vox Lux sweats its way toward something I think we're meant to take as seriously as the intermittent narration offered by an off-screen Willem Dafoe.

All I can say is that I tried, but I also wondered if effort (a palpable sense of reaching for something) didn’t outweigh the movie’s overall achievement.

Post-apocalyptic sci-fi that tilts juvenile

Mortal Engines can't find characters to keep us interested in its 'visionary' design.
It's not difficult to see why Lord of Rings guru Peter Jackson might have wanted to be involved with Mortal Engines, a big-screen adaptation of a British YA novel by Philip Reeve.

Set 1,000 years in the future, the movie includes a massive version of London that moves through a post-apocalyptic world on giant treads. It also features a balloon habitat that floats in the sky, a variety of scruffy looking characters who could be extras from a Road Warrior movie and a Lazarus Warrior, a once-human creature who gave up memory and pain to become a mostly mechanical creation.

These are the ingredients in which Jackson, who serves as the movie's producer and one of its writers, may have seen mind-blowing visionary possibilities.

Under the direction of Christian Rivers, these possibilities are only partially realized. It's telling, for example, that the movie's Lazarus Warrior -- he's named Shrike -- might be its most interesting character.

The rest of the cast is stuck playing characters who have a generic quality, cardboard cutouts roaming this imaginatively conceived (if seldom plausible) world.

A complicated story involves the evil plans of one of mobile London's big-wigs (Hugo Weaving). Weaving's Thaddeus Valentine has a strikingly blonde daughter (Leila George) who idolizes him but who eventually will be forced to face disillusionment about her father.

This isn't much of a spoiler because the bulk of the action revolves around two other characters. A history buff named Tom (Robert Sheehan) devotes himself to collecting pre-apocalypse memorabilia while harboring dreams of being an aviator. Toasters from "ancient" times fascinate Tom.

The plot contrives to throw Tom into the company of Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young woman with a scarred face and a deep hatred for Valentine.

Expelled from London, Tom and Hester find themselves on the run but eventually must return to the city to stop Valentine from executing his hyper-destructive plans, which (of course) involve an ambition to make himself the world's most powerful man.

Some of the movie's set pieces (an opening chase in which the mobile London chases a smaller city and "ingests" it) fly by in an entertaining fashion but you'd have to have emerged from a 50-year coma not to know that the initial hostility of Hester toward Tom eventually will turn to love.

The movie manages to wring a bit of humor out of what it calls "old tech," i.e. stuff that's recognizable to audiences in 2018.

Before the movie's great final battle, Tom and Hester visit a city constructed behind a wall and led by a monkish looking Asian man who screams of fictional stereotyping. This, after hooking up with Anna Fang (South Korean pop star Jihae), a pilot with her own agenda and a haircut so severe, it might have edges that cut.

The final battle involves Valentine's deployment of a weapon that would have been at home in an old Flash Gordon serial, but by then, it's difficult to believe anything's really at stake, aside from finding a way to conclude the proceedings.

Oh well, Mortal Engines doesn't generate disdain -- at least it didn't in me -- but it's difficult to avoid thinking that not enough has been accomplished by a scrapheap of a movie that can feel both old-fashioned and old hat.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Nominees for 24th Critics' Choice Awards

The Broadcast Film Critics Association has announced nominations for the 24th annual Critics' Choice Awards. The Favourite leads the way with 14 nominations. Black Panther follows with 12 nominations.

I'm a member of the BFCA and publish the organization's nominations as a prelude to year-end 10-best lists and as an indicator of how this year's Oscars might unfold. But Oscar obviously has a mind of its own, and this year promises a variety of close races.

Although I'm not crazy about lists, I do find it useful to look back on the year and take stock of what Hollywood offered us. The New York Times' critics already have weighed in with their choices and others will, as well. I'll post mine shortly.

You may not agree with every choice, but year-end evaluations serve as a way for audiences to check their own tastes against those of those who write about movies.

Some things to note about this year's BFCA nominations:

There always are anomalies when it comes to awards. This year's nominations include a best-picture nod for Black Panther but none for the movie's director, Ryan Coogler. Sandy Powell was nominated twice in the best costume category, once for Mary Poppins Returns and once for The Favourite, two movies that never will be confused in viewers' minds.

It's also worth noting that the BFCA awards -- unlike Oscar -- are broad-based and more reflective of audience inclinations, including nominations for action movies, sci-fi and horror, and comedy.

The winners will be announced at the Critics' Choice Awards, which will be broadcast on the CW on Jan. 13, 7 PM, eastern time and may involve delayed broadcasts in other time zones. (Check listings.)

But let's get to the list of nominees:

Black Panther
The Favourite
First Man
Green Book
If Beale Street Could Talk
Mary Poppins Returns
A Star Is Born

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Ryan Gosling, First Man
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns
Glenn Close, The Wife
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther

Amy Adams, Vice
Claire Foy, First Man
Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Ed Oxenbould, Wildlife
Millicent Simmonds, A Quiet Place
Amandla Stenberg, The Hate U Give
Sunny Suljic, Mid90s

Black Panther
Crazy Rich Asians
The Favourite

Damien Chazelle, First Man
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Peter Farrelly, Green Book
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay, Vice

Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite
Adam McKay, Vice
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Green Book
Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski, A Quiet Place

Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther
Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, A Star Is Born
Josh Singer, First Man
Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee – BlacKkKlansman

Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
James Laxton, If Beale Street Could Talk
Matthew Libatique, A Star Is Born
Rachel Morrison, Black Panther
Robbie Ryan, The Favourite
Linus Sandgren, First Man

Hannah Beachler, Jay Hart, Black Panther
Eugenio Caballero, Barbara Enriquez, Roma
Nelson Coates, Andrew Baseman, Crazy Rich Asians
Fiona Crombie, Alice Felton, The Favourite
Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas, First Man
John Myhre, Gordon Sim, Mary Poppins Returns

Jay Cassidy, A Star Is Born
Hank Corwin, Vice
Tom Cross, First Man
Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough, Roma
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite
Joe Walker, Widows

Alexandra Byrne, Mary Queen of Scots
Ruth Carter, Black Panther
Julian Day, Bohemian Rhapsody
Sandy Powell, The Favourite
Sandy Powell, Mary Poppins Returns

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Mary Queen of Scots

Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
First Man
Mary Poppins Returns
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Ready Player One

The Grinch
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
Deadpool 2
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Ready Player One

Crazy Rich Asians
Deadpool 2
The Death of Stalin
The Favourite
Game Night
Sorry to Bother You

Christian Bale, Vice
Jason Bateman, Game Night
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
John C. Reilly, Stan & Ollie
Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool 2
Lakeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You

Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Rachel McAdams, Game Night
Charlize Theron, Tully
Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians

A Quiet Place

Cold War

All the Stars, Black Panther
Girl in the Movies, Dumplin’
I’ll Fight, RBG
The Place Where Lost Things Go, Mary Poppins Returns
Shallow, A Star Is Born
Trip a Little Light Fantastic, Mary Poppins Returns

Kris Bowers, Green Book
Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk
Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs
Ludwig Göransson, Black Panther
Justin Hurwitz, First Man
Marc Shaiman, Mary Poppins Returns

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A court corrupted by ambition

The Favourite features fine performances by three actresses and bravura work by its idiosyncratic director, Yorgos Lanthimos.
The moral decadence of an aristocracy has been carried to ridiculous (and, yes, instructive) extremes in director Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite. Set in the 18th-century court of Britain's Queen Anne, The Favourite laces an irresistible story with strong doses of intrigue, sex, betrayal, lust, and power. All that makes for a meal that should satisfy the most voracious of thematic appetites.

The Favourite doesn't pass muster as accurately portrayed history or entirely caustic drama; it exists in a world that floats between those two poles, dispensing amusement and rue as if they were party favors at a festival of human folly. Lanthimos has created a world that conjoins conniving ambition with the preening excesses of a court where the events of the day (a war to name one) are kept at an antiseptic distance.

One aristocratic faction opposes the continuation of a war with France on monetary grounds. The anti-war nobles have grown weary of financing it. Another faction sees the war as vital to the kingdom's security.

Issues of the 18th century aside, The Favourite seems particularly attuned to the current moment, reminding us that politics often eschews substance as it wallows in baser impulses of vindictive self-interest.

The story centers on three women. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) becomes an object to be manipulated: She's a childish, impetuous monarch who falls victim to her moods and to her physical maladies. Her gout makes her moan, cry and walk with a limb.

Rachel Weisz portrays Lady Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, confidant and chief adviser to the queen, as well as her lover.

Last, but by no means least, is Emma Stone's Abigail, a Churchill cousin who arrives at the court in gravely reduced circumstances. Abigail becomes a protege of Lady Churchill and eventually tries to surpass her in influence.

Sex, as seen here, relates neither to love nor lust: It has become currency to be dispensed when necessary in the quest for personal advancement or to secure one’s position.

Colman, in one of the year's best performances, creates a queen of deep sadness and flighty temperament. Every now and again, Anne remembers that she's in charge and issues an irrefutable order, probably to remind herself that she’s at the top of this aristocratic heap.

Weisz's Churchill mixes sharp intelligence and cunning into a poisonous cocktail that shows trace elements of actual conviction. Stone follows suit in the most difficult role, an ingenue who knows how to keep her talons concealed. Abigail eventually connives to marry an empty-headed young man (Joe Alwyn) for reasons that serve her ambitious purposes.

Beautifully upholstered in foppish finery, the court becomes an arena in which these noble souls compete, perhaps because without intrigue their lives would choke on vapidity and boredom. The men in The Favourite come across as powdered peacocks who strut about while ostensibly fretting about weighty matters of state.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) sports rouged cheeks and a wig. He's angling to advance his political position as chief opponent to the war with France.

At one point, we see the nobleman behaving like silly fratboys, tossing oranges at one their naked companions, who attempts to dodge the splatter. They also engage in indoor duck racing, a sport that happily did not survive the 18th century.

The queen has her own preoccupations: She keeps pet rabbits that run around her chambers, furry substitutes for the 17 children she lost to death.

Lanthimos heretofore has been known for The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer, movies that many found indigestible in their strangeness. By comparison, The Favourite comes off as quite accessible, although closer observation will reveal much of the weirdness that has defined Lanthimos' work, this time emphasized with fish-eye lenses and a mood of sustained madness.

Steeped in human dereliction, The Favourite certainly can't be accused of dreariness. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara keep the story moving and don't stint on expressions of profane wit.

All of this is brought to an astonishing conclusion with close-ups, one of Queen Anne's face on which Lanthimos practically bets the entire movie. He asks Colman to reveal the queen's mental and emotional state after so much plotting and deceit. Colman more than makes Lanthimos' bet pay. Anne's look at the end of this engaging, disturbing and gleefully malicious movie proves unforgettable.

A family that steals together

Shoplifters qualifies as one of the year’s best movies.
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda won the top prize at Cannes this year for Shoplifters, a movie steeped in the kind of understatement that lulls us into acceptance as Kore-eda works his way toward an emotionally powerful conclusion.

Kore-eda (After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son) has made a career out of quietly upending expectation. This time, he introduces us to a family that shoplifts in order to eat.

Although their survival may be based on larceny, the Shibatas are basically happy and devoted to one another. The father of the clan (Lily Franky) intermittently works on construction projects but also operates under a logically dubious credo: He argues that taking things from stores isn't really stealing because these items don't yet belong to anyone. To make this clear, the movie begins with Franky's Osamu and his 12-year-old son Shota (Jyo Kairi) on a "shopping" expedition.

The rest of the family includes a mother (Sakura Ando), an older sister (Mayu Matsuoka) and a grandmother (Kirin Kiki).

In case those characters don't represent enough of a tribe, the family takes in a stray, five-year-old Juri (Miyu Sasaki). Osamu and Shota discover the child freezing on a balcony: She seems to have been abandoned and abused. Kidnapping? Of course, but Kore-eda never underlines anything. It doesn’t take long for us to believe that as a part of this impoverished family, Juri's better off than she was.

Kore-eda excels at injecting volatile movie elements (kidnapping, theft, etc.) into situations that seem entirely ordinary, even banal. As a result, we go with the flow, which turns us into co-conspirators of a sort and widens the movie’s thematic reach until it touches the borders of social statement.

Nearly all the family members are employed. Mom works in a laundry where she presses clothes. Big sister earns money doing soft-core porn in a place where men watch young women dressed as schoolgirls as they disrobe behind glass partitions. Kore-eda doesn't allow this occupation to degrade Matsuoka's character because she doesn't allow her work to penetrate her soul.

We're unsettled by the idea that the obviously bright Shota doesn't attend school, but once again, a disturbing detail becomes a matter-of-fact addition to the lives we've been observing.

Gradually, Kore-eda allows a plot to unfold and the family faces severe challenges. We shouldn't be surprised. This group scrapes by in a cramped one-room home and surely, we know that a life supported by shoplifting doesn't qualify as highly sustainable.

And, of course, this family isn't quite what it seems. I won't say more. But Shoplifters has less to do with plot twists than with finding the pathos in marginalized lives that we've come to care about thanks to Kore-eda's keenly observed treatment of them.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

A family caught in a moment of crisis

Actor Paul Dano moves behind the camera to direct Wildlife, a big-screen adaptation of a Richard Ford novel set in Great Falls, Montana, a lonely outpost where a mother (Carey Mulligan) and her son (Ed Oxenbould) have been moved by Dad (Jake Gyllenhaal), a guy who can't seem to settle into anything. The town of Great Falls marks Dad's latest stop on what seems to have been a road to nowhere. Gyllenhaal's Jerry ignites the drama, which begins in 1960, when he's fired from his job tending the greens at a local golf club. The club offers him his job back, but Jerry -- stuck in a rut created by what seem to be obscure but irrevocable principles -- refuses. Instead, he's off to fight forest fires, putting his life in danger for very little money and leaving his wife to tend to their teenage son Joe. Joe, played with just the right degree of quiet confusion by Oxenbould, tries his best to cope, taking on the uneasy role of man of the house. With Jerry off fighting fires, Mulligan's Jeanette begins what seems a willed unravelment. She takes up a relationship with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), an unlikely love interest who owns the local car dealership and whose friendliness toward young Joe wavers between sincerity and calculation. Oddly, Jeanette drags her son into the whole business, taking him to dinner at Miller's house. Could anything be more uncomfortable for a kid? The fires raging away from the town suggest a looming conflagration but the fire that rages in Mulligan's performance pushes the movie toward its sad final shot. Not always easy to read, Wildlife nonetheless entangles us in the lives of characters who defy easy definition.

Friday, November 23, 2018

When ambiguity becomes the suject

If you have a taste for uncertainty, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's Burning may prove intriguing.
If you're the sort of person who likes movies in which every "i" is dotted and every "t," crossed, you'll probably want to avoid director Lee Chang-dong's Burning, a film that's loosely based on a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

If on the other hand, you're game to join Lee as he travels through a world marked by uncertainty, ambiguity, and behavior that often defies explanation, you may find yourself intrigued by Burning, a movie that leaves us with the kind of space that invites speculation.

Lee brings his own social concerns to the material, setting his story against a background in which too many of South Korea's young college-educated men are unemployed or under-employed and in which class gaps have widened. Within that environment, Lee builds an artfully slow look at relationships that he never entirely defines. Then again, Lee's characters are not so much defined as sketched with small, telling strokes.

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-lin) graduated from college and aspires to be a writer, but he's stuck tending to his decaying father's farm in rural Paju, a village so close to the border with North Korea that he often hears North Korean propaganda blasting on loudspeakers. Jong-su's father, who has anger management problems, has been arrested for attacking a local official.

Early on, Jong-su meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman from the same village. Jong-su doesn't remember her, but Hae-mi tries to reassure him by saying that she's had plastic surgery and, as a result, has become "pretty." Should we believe her? Questions about the veracity of what characters say ripple throughout Lee's movie.

Hae-mi pushes the relationship. Initially, Jong-su goes along without showing much enthusiasm. But after the two wind up in bed, Jong-su falls deeply in love with Hae-mi. He agrees to feed her cat while she travels to Africa in search of satisfaction of what she calls "the great hunger;" i.e., spiritual fulfillment.

It's not difficult to see why Jong-su is captivated by Hae-mi. She's beautiful, engaging and charming, a young woman who claims that people easily can be tricked into believing illusions. Perhaps she's an illusion.

Over drinks, Hae-mi does a convincing job of peeling and eating an invisible tangerine. It's her way of making her point about deception to Jong-Su.

When Hae-mi returns from Africa, the story takes another turn. It seems that Hae-mi made a new friend in the Nairobi airport, an affluent young man named Ben (Steve Yeun). To Jong-su's dismay, Ben is probably more than a friend.

Later, Hae-mi and Ben visit Jong-su in the country. The trio smokes pot and the free-spirited Hae-Mi dances topless. Ben also tells Jong-su about a strange hobby he has. Every couple of months, he burns down an abandoned greenhouse.

Not long after this country gathering, Hae-mi disappears and Jong-su spends the rest of Lee's two-and-a-half-hour movie searching for her.

OK, that's enough about what passes for a plot in Burning. The movie isn't about what happens; it's about whether the characters ever really can grasp the nature of reality. Do other people, by definition, remain impenetrable mysteries?

Burning invites us to question everything that we're seeing, a process that's aided by its cast of fine young actors. As Jong-su, Yoo Ah-in can seem obtuse, even a bit dull, but the camera sticks close to him. He's trying -- without much success -- to figure out a game for which he doesn't know the rules. Because he doesn’t always push to find the answer to questions that bother him, you may wonder whether he’s willfully keeping himself in a state of confusion.

Jeon couples the allure of a femme fatale with an adventurous spirit. Yeun conveys the sense of entitlement that has come easily to a young man who never in his life has struggled.

Lee provides strong hints about what may have happened to the vanished Dae-Mi, but nothing transpires with absolute certainty in a movie in which all the characters are, in one way or another, adrift in a society in which meaningful connections have become as difficult to latch onto as the smoke that arises from the joint that Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben pass from one to another.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Creed again climbs into the ring

Creed II isn't as good as the first installment, but it's no disgrace, either. Credit the cast for keeping familiar characters alive -- if a little bruised.

The characters in Creed II — at least some of them — talk to tombstones, take what appears to be life-threatening beatings, and somehow manage to get caught up in Russian intrigue.

Also, in Creed II, Michael B. Jordan returns as Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed and protege of Rocky Balboa, who now runs a Philadelphia restaurant named for his late wife Adrian. Rocky's restaurant seems sparsely attended, which may make you wonder how the former Italian Stallion keeps himself in porkpie hats.

Also on board for this second helping of Creed, which follows director Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky spinoff, is a veteran of earlier Rocky movies. Enter granite-faced Dolph Lundgren, who appears as the vicious Ivan Drago, an outcast former boxer who now trains his equally vicious son Victor Drago (Romanian boxer Florian 'Big Nasty' Munteanu).

The elder Drago has several goals in mind: defeating Adonis, recapturing the heavy-weight title for Russia (a way for him to salvage the reputation he had prior to the Soviet collapse) and using his son to banish memories of the humiliation Ivan suffered at Rocky’s hands in Rocky IV (1985).

In this episode, which has been directed by Steven Cable Jr., we also witness Adonis’ engagement to hearing-impaired Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Clearly devoted to each other, Adonis and Bianca also welcome their first child, a daughter. If they need parental advice, they always can turn to Adonis’ warm and knowing mother (Phylicia Rashad).

Sometimes a bit lethargic, sometimes amusing, sometimes brutal, Creed II loads up on father/son themes: Adonis tries to avenge his father’s death in the ring at Ivan Drago's hands; Rocky’s burdened by continuing estrangement from his own son; Ivan Drago tries to reclaim his honor through his son; and, if all that isn't enough, Rocky plays father figure to Adonis.

Initially, Rocky opposes Adonis’ desire to fight the younger Drago, perhaps sensing that Adonis' style doesn’t match well with that of the physically imposing battler from Ukraine. Rocky sits out the first fight. Rocky, of course, will return to Adonis’ corner for the rematch, dragging his charge off to the desert for a punishing training regimen before traveling to Moscow for the championship bout.

In taking over the controls, Cable stages the big fights with as much hoopla as he can muster, even if they don't quite provide the rousing uplift one expects from such movies.

The last Creed movie felt surprising and fresh. It was fun to watch Jordan and director Ryan Coogler breathe new life into an old chestnut, and Stallone's return as a beloved screen character proved welcome. Who knew we missed Rocky so much?

Creed II drags here and there, but Stallone keeps Rocky endearing and Jordan has the kind of intensity and earnestness that makes us root for Adonis, even if the whole business wavers on the edge of a split decision: Not awful enough to take the 10-count but not quite exciting enough to be declared an untarnished winner.

One wonders about the franchise's future. Coogler moved on to direct Black Panther and Jordan, who also appeared in Black Panther, is slated to star in another Coogler movie, this one about an Atlanta teacher who alters test scores to increase his school's chance for funding. (See IMDb.)

Far be it from me to tell the filmmakers to hang up the gloves, but they could well be satisfied with having achieved great success with one movie and keeping Adonis and Rocky afloat for another, even if Creed II leaves them slightly staggered by an inevitable loss of punch.