Monday, December 31, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2018

The year 2018 was a terrible one for me professionally, and with more than a few setbacks personally, too.  Politically it was a smoking crater. Cinematically it was somewhat above average.

I found myself often at odds with other critics this year, particularly my friends and comrades in the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Things that blew them away I found mildly amusing ("Paddington 2") or borderline unwatchable ("Roma"). Movies I loved were greeted with ambivalence or outright hostility by other critics.


It's the breaks of the game. Any critic who is afraid to sometimes stand apart from the crowd isn't worth reading, imho. In the same vein, critics who give into the urge to always be outside the mainstream, clinging to their contrarian mantle, are more interested in themselves than the movies they're writing about or the audience they're supposed to be writing for.

Last year's list was notable for its preponderance of tiny indie films. There are plenty represented here too, though not as heavily. My unabashed critical credo is "I likes what I likes." I try to approach every film with an open heart and mind. I don't care the genre, country of origin, budget, studio, stars or filmmakers involved -- if it moves me to adoration, I will shout it from the hilltops.

So here's my top 10 for 2018, along with the collection of also-rans and disappointments.

#1: Green Book

I admit to being baffled by the pushback to this film, which has often crossed over into sneering antagonism. To me it was the most uplifting movie of the year, the true (or at least based on) story of two men who had every reason to hate each other and wound up forging a lifelong friendship. Sentimental? Sure. A carefully bookended view of racial dynamics in the early 1960s? That's true too, but all movies simplify and distill to tell their tale. People also seem angry that the story is told from the perspective of the white character. So what? It was his kid who, for decades, nursed a dream of making a movie about his father's friendship with a celebrated jazz musician. If you've noticed, children of famous people don't make movies about their parent's friendship with nobodies. Is it because Mahershala Ali is being pushed for a supporting role during the awards cycle instead of leading, where he belongs with co-star Viggo Mortensen? Welcome to the rampant world of category-hopping prevalent today. Hating "Green Book" is like despising Mother Theresa. It hasn't a mean bone in its body. Honestly, I think its reception has been greeted in the context of our vicious tribalism, where people can't look past their own groups/bubbles and accept people and things as they are. If this movie hadn't come out in the Trump era, it'd be the horse to beat for the Best Picture Oscar.

#2: Bohemian Rhapsody

Another movie I feel I have to defend rather than extol. "It's just another rock 'n' roll biopic." No. It. Is. Not! I already loved the songs of Queen before the movie came out, but its determination to not just be The Freddie Mercury Story is what put it over the top for me. By including all the inner dynamics of the band and not just being "Freddie and the Other Guys," it was a step above the genre. Plus, all that great music. I get a smile just thinking about this movie.

#3: The Hate U Give

Marvelously acted, and possibly the best drama about race in America since "Do the Right Thing" nearly 30 years ago. The counterpoint to "Green Book," a film that disturbs rather than unites. The IFJA gave this our top award for the year, and I was proud to do so.

#4: A Star Is Born

Why does this work so well? I can't say. Maybe because I haven't seen the 1950s or '70s version of the story, only the 1930s original. Lady Gaga will get most of the buzz and awards, and she's quite good, but it's Bradley Cooper's performance that blew me away. The voice -- brazenly borrowed from co-star Sam Elliott -- the haunted stare, the subtle way he uses his hearing loss to ingratiate himself with strangers -- it's just a masterful piece of character-building.

#5: Avengers: Infinity War

Who knew that a superhero movie could have so much depth, so many surprises, such a looming sense of inevitable tragedy? That sound you heard this summer was millions of people scraping their jaws off the floor of the theater. Yes, it'll all (or mostly) get hocused-pocused back to square in next year's "Avengers: Endgame." But for now, it's amazing that mainstream movies can be this bold.

#6: The Wife

Glenn Close is my pick to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, playing the long-suffering spouse of a famous author with a secret. Even if you guess what it is before the end, or have it spoiled for you, it's still an indelible portrait of a woman who has embraced compromise all her life, and is now chafing under its weight even as she seemingly is reaping all the spoils.

#7: Cold War

The best foreign film of the year, based loosely on director Pawel Pawlikowski's own parents' doomed romance. Aesthetically is it rather similar to "Roma," shot in gorgeously bleak black-and-white... except it actually has a story to tell.

#8: Chappaquiddick

Another movie I think was written off because it doesn't align with Hollywood's present political panic. Jason Clarke is terrific as Teddy Kennedy, in a movie that seeks to explore his character in the face of tragedy, rather than just condemn him as an evil boogeyman like "Vice."

#9: The Favourite

This one could've been much higher on the list if it could have stuck the landing. Or had one. I'm not a big fan of movies that simply stop at an arbitrary, unsatisfying point. Filmmakers like to think of it as embracing ambivalence. (How very European!) But I think they just can't come up with a good way to end the story, so they decide to omit one entirely. Fortunately, before this literal last-minute stumble came perhaps the best costume drama about the miscreant doings of a royal court since "Dangerous Liaisons." And three of the four best performances by an actress this year, all in one movie. Alas, the awards groups can't seem to figure out in which categories the actresses belong. Calling Emma Stone, who plays the main character, a supporting actress is absurd. Ditto for giving top billing and leading status to Olivia Colman, whose wastrel queen is the object upon which the subjects act. Rachel Weisz' character is up for some debate, though I'd come down for her as leading as well.

#10: Leave No Trace

This very quiet, still film has grown on me steadily since I saw it mid-year. Debra Granik is my pick for the best director of the year, though I fear this tiny indie will be overlooked. It's the story of a wounded father raising his preteen daughter in the woods, almost completely cut off from the rest of society. The movie is much less interested in the why of how this situation came to be as the how it plays out in the relationships in this tiny family unit. Ben Foster may just be the best character actor working today.

Best of the Rest

Most years I struggle to finish the top 10, juggling several films around for the last few spots. This year it was fairly easy to make the cuts. I was still amazed by all these movies on some level. Presented alphabetically.

At Eternity's Gate  -- Actually makes you feel how Van Gogh's madness and genius where intertwined.
Beast -- Jessie Buckley is mysterious and beguiling. I'd love for Hollywood to figure out something to do with her.
On the Basis of Sex -- Stolid biopic/court drama that offers few surprises but does what it does very well.
Ben Is Back -- Love seeing Julia Roberts in a role with sweetness and snarl.
Disobedience -- Rachel Weisz continues to be on a roll in small movies most people don't see.
First Reformed -- Ditto Ethan Hawke.
Hearts Beat Loud
Juliet, Naked
Love, Simon -- A lot of heavy-handed movies about gay youths this year. This one actually has brains, heart and a sense of humor.
Ready Player One -- Has the ever been a movie to more quietly earn a half a billion dollars?
RGB -- My favorite documentary of the year. The filmmakers are clearly in love with their subject but still offer a balanced portrait.
Shoplifters -- A surprisingly sentimental choice for the Cannes Palme d'Or prize. Reminds me a lot of Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den."
Sorry to Bother You -- Offbeat, silly, vexing, angry, brashly original.
Welcome to Marwen -- I am crushed by this film's poor critical reception and box office death. Maybe just a little too weird to get people off their couch. Hopefully it'll be rediscovered as a gem a few years down the road like "Lars and the Real Girl."

The Disappointments

These aren't necessarily bad movies, but ones that left me underwhelmed. Listed alphabetically.

Ben Is Back  -- This is a Very Important Movie. And it really wants you to know it is a Very Important Movie.
Black Panther -- Funny how people who were swooning last March about this being the end-all, be-all superhero movie are much quieter now. Once it got out to a wider audience people saw it for what it is: a middling Marvel Comics Universe movie.
Eighth Grade -- Good, not great.
Hereditary -- She's a witch!
If Beale Street Could Talk -- Gorgeous looking and my favorite musical score of the year. Regina King is terrific as the mom. Main characters are kinda tuneless. Classic example of a good movie that could've been great.
Minding the Gap -- I admit my patience for feature films about skateboarders is very low. It eventually gets somewhere else... eventually. 
Paddington 2 -- A perfectly serviceable sequel to a wonderful family picture. And nothing more.
A Quiet Place -- A decent thriller/horror. Still can't figure out why they didn't just pitch tents next to the waterfall and live there, since it's the one place the sound-eaters can't find them.
Roma -- What a deeply flawed concept for a movie: Alfonso Cuarón tells the story of his family in 1970s Mexico City from the viewpoint of the family maid, but forgets to give her a character.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -- I can't believe how people are swooning for this pleasing, imaginative but puddle-deep flick. Not even close to the best superhero or animated movie of the year.
Suspiria -- I am so over the "Tilda Swinton is such a chameleon, so let's give her 3+ parts in our movie" thing.
Vice -- Just a nasty, nasty takedown of Dick Cheney. Lies all over the place. Ugly and unnecessary. Actually made me feel more sympathy for the veep than I had going in.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? -- Even as a 4- or 5-year-old, I found Mr. Rogers' show a bit dull. Ditto the documentary about it.

Reeling Backward: "The Moon Is Down" (1943)

"The Grapes of Wrath" is a true rarity: a book universally touted as Great Literature that's actually a genuinely good read -- unlike others I could name; see Joyce, James -- that was subsequently turned into movie so fine, it's arguably as iconic as the novel itself.

For his followup to "Grapes," John Steinbeck chose to pen a contemporaneous piece of fiction about the German occupation of a small Norwegian mining town. Though the author was more circumspect, referring to them as the townspeople and "the invaders."

Sensing another big hit, and with the advent of World War II creating a voracious appetite for films with a propagandist bent, the studio again paired Steinbeck with his "Grapes" screenwriter/producer partner, Nunnally Johnson, with whom he had become close friends.

Steinbeck reportedly gave Johnson free reign to tinker with the novel, which he wrote with the intention of adapting it into a stage play, hitting Broadway in 1942. I haven't read the book, but from what I gather Johnson did not take his friend's permission to heart, sticking quite faithfully to the text.

The result is probably the least-remembered film adaptation of a Steinbeck work. Though he ended up receiving the highest civilian award from the Norwegian king as thanks after the war, "The Moon Is Down" is a rather staid, self-serious movie that aims a little too obviously to demonstrate the nobility of "small men" in the face of Nazi oppression.

It features a trio of fine character actors -- Lee J. Cobb, Cedrick Hardwicke and Henry Travers, forever the angel Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life."

But the film suffers from having no main character or strong narrative through-line. The Germans take over the town with ease, a quiet war of wills begins between the conquerors and the conquered, and the heavy hand of the Nazi regime soon stokes the embers of resentment into an outright blaze of revolt.

The title, incidentally, is from an obscure line in Macbeth that portends imminent violence.

Travers plays Orden, the mayor of the (never named) village. A simple, soft-spoken man, Orden is prepared to accept the German occupation with grace and deference. As he repeatedly says, he's a little man, and not a particularly brave one, the elected head of a little town. But he has strong beliefs that no people can ever be truly defeated if they keep their sense of independent freedom in their hearts.

Hardwicke is Col. Lanser, the German officer placed in charge of the town. In the opening scene we see him receiving his orders from a general, and seems positively bored about the prospect of his new assignment, so far away from the front. His job is simple: keep the people down, and extract every ounce of iron from the nearby mine as he can.

Lanser is not a classic screen villain: he's intelligent and prefers to rule via decree rather than violence. But he's not afraid to kill innocent men as an example to others, taking hostages and then executing them publicly when there are acts of sabotage or resistance. Of course, this only spurs more reprisals, as Orden had predicted to him.

Cobb, as I've previously mentioned, is an actor remembered for a long line of older, often angry men, most notably in... well, "12 Angry Men." But he was usually much younger than the characters he portrayed. Here playing Albert Winter, the elderly town doctor, Cobb was barely into his 30s, but quite convincing in a silver hairpiece and subtle aging makeup.

Winter attempts to be the conciliatory force working between the mayor and German colonel, but it does not turn out very well, as we might expect.

The movie is at its best when the three primary actors are bouncing off each other. There's a powerful scene toward the end where, after being condemned to execution, Orden recalls a speech he made in high school, reciting Socrates' Denunciation. It's the strident call of a man about to die, eloquently spitting his defiance at his murderers.

Lanser wanders in during the speech, recognizes both its source and the context in which it is being recalled, and even assists Orden with a word he's forgotten. We find ourselves liking all three men, if for different reasons.

The real bad guy is E.J. Ballantine as George Corell, the traitor who helped prepare the town for invasion. It's a little unclear what this consisted of, other than providing intelligence about the general layout and the presence of a tiny 12-man militia comprised of local men. As if they could have stood up to the Germans' 250 crack troops, even without them being tipped off.

Orden refuses to have anything to do with Corell, unable to grasp how a native-born Norwegian could betray his own people. Lanser also doesn't take a particular like to the spy, making light of the small injuries Corell keeps turning up with at the hands of the perturbed villagers. Lanser refuses Corell's insistence that he be installed as mayor, but later is overruled when the traitor travels to Berlin to complain, returning with orders for harsher tactics.

(The notion that the Third Reich would side with a foreigner over its own high-ranking German officer is highly suspect.)

Hardwicke gets plenty of screen time, but Travers and Cobb disappear for long stretches involving other townsfolk and doings, which don't carry much emotional heft. The biggest one involves a sequence with Molly Morden (Dorris Bowdon), the widow of one of the murdered local militiaman, and a young German lieutenant, Tonder (Peter van Eyck).

Tonder wanders into the local pub one night, desperately bored and lonely, and is hurt when all the local men depart -- staying only the requisite 15 minutes he orders them to. Later he has a near-crackup in front of other officers, even going so far as to suppose that Hitler is crazy. He then winds up on the doorstep of Molly, pitching woo.

It's implied that she summons him to her bedroom and then murders him with a large pair of knitting shears. But the act is never commented upon further, other thana  vague reference to Molly having made it safely over the border. You'd think the murder of a German officer would be a pivotal event in the narrative, but it's completely brushed under the rug.

This very short, doomed romance winds up being all buildup and no payoff.

A couple of asides about the pair of actors. Despite supposedly being a callow youth, van Eyck was actually five months older than Cobb. Bowdon was another holdover from "Grapes," playing one of the Joad sisters. She was married to writer/producer Nunnally Johnson, perhaps suggesting why such a dead-end story thread is allowed to spool out so long. Bowdon had her first child after production, and willingly (or perhaps not) ended her acting career at age 29.

Another sequence that holds some early traction is the delivery of individual sticks of dynamite -- along with a chocolate bar -- from the Royal Air Force, dropped in with little parachutes and accompany suggestions about how to use them to foil the Germans. Soon train tracks, supply dumps and even the mine itself are beset by explosions. Again, this aspect of the tale just sort of wanders off and is forgotten until the very end.

"The Moon Is Down" isn't a bad film, just a forgettable one. Perhaps it was having a journeyman director, Irving Pichel, at the helm instead of John Ford, one of the greats of cinema. But I don't think so.

The truth is Steinbeck's story just doesn't work very well on the screen. It's episodic and rambling, showing us interesting characters and then misplacing them, or presenting insipid characters who tarry much too long.

Great home-run hitters usually struck out a lot too, but people remember the titanic swats instead of the fanning. Steinbeck's percentage was very good, but nobody hits 1,000.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Review: "Vice"

“Vice” comes not to illuminate, but eviscerate. Unlike other portraits of powerful men in the WHite House (“Nixon,” “W.”), there is no attempt to show nuance or pursue inquiry. The reason this film exists is to condemn former Vice President Dick Cheney, to call him out as an evil and corrupt man.

There’s nothing else to call it but a hatchet job. It’s a well-made, splendidly acted one, caustic and occasionally quite funny. But let’s call a spade a spade.

Three years ago writer/director Adam MacKay made “The Big Short,” which I marveled at its ability to be so angry and so funny at the same time. “Vice” does the same, although the proportions are way out of whack.

The thing people will talk most about is the transformation of Christian Bale. And it’s a knockout. The tall, lean actor of “Batman” is so physically and vocally spot-on as the late-middle-aged, bald and portly Cheney that they barely even needed to superimpose Bale’s image into historical photos and footage.

His Cheney is a growly bear of a man, one who speaks in a guttural monotone punctuated with odd pauses. He’s obsessed with power, gaining it and using it.

The portions covering his early life are rather flat and sketchy. Amy Adams plays his wife, Lynne, a powerful woman who demands that he reform his wayward path. After failing out of Yale, he became an electrical lineman in Wyoming who racked up two DUIs. But he turned things around, earned college degrees and became a congressional intern, eventually allying with a young Congressman named Donald Rumsfeld.

If Bale’s Cheney is the film’s dour yang, then Steve Carell’s exuberantly mercenary Rumsfeld is the giddy yang. Together they would move up to Nixon’s White House, and then become the youngest Secretary of Defense and Chief of Staff, respectively, under the Ford administration.

The story bounces around in time somewhat, with Cheney’s relationship with former President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) as the framing device. Like other Hollywood movies, “Vice” portrays the 43rd president as a bumbling yokel out of his element in the corridors of power. The Machiavellian Cheney sees this as his chance to remake the office of the vice presidency from a ceremonial BS job into a locus of dark, secretive power.

Much of MacKay’s story is taken from the historical record, but overlaid with a heavy slathering of showbiz razzmatazz that often crosses the line into outright mean-spirited fabrication. For instance, the controversial “outing” of CIA agent Valerie Plame is shown to be done explicitly at Cheney’s orders. (Even though a State Department official, Richard Armitage, admitted that he inadvertently slipped the info to columnist Robert Novak.)

Rather than just show Cheney to be a bad guy, MacKay goes for the whole hog: declaring that the blame for much of our problems today, from ISIS to the concentration of wealth, can be laid at Cheney’s feet.

The movie repeatedly throws up titles about the “unitary executive theory,” a bit of legal doctrine embraced by Cheney that has been interpreted by some to mean the president essentially has the powers of a dictator. There’s even a furtive flashback to the 1970s with a young Antonin Scalia, later a conservative stalwart on the Supreme Court, first introducing Cheney to the concept.

In the end “Vice” plays out as a conspiracy theorist’s dream, intercutting horrible war footage and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners with Cheney clomping along the hallways of the White House. I swear there’s even a snippet of the recent California Camp Fire in there -- I guess that’s Cheney’s fault, too?

It’s fine to loathe Dick Cheney and even make a whole movie to that effect. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. Despite the masterful performance by Bale, “Vice” plays as a venomous takedown of a personality-challenged right-winger Hollywood loves to hate.

I didn’t have any particular sympathy for Cheney going into the movie, but it stacks the deck so badly I did afterward.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Review: "Mary Poppins Returns"

“Mary Poppins Returns” doesn’t just bring back the characters and settings from the iconic 1964 film. It actually attempts to revive the musical genre as it was more than a half-century ago: blessedly un-ironic, family-friendly and with snappy old-school Broadway-style show tunes.

It garnered a PG rating from the MPAA, but really it doesn’t even merit a hard G.

I’ll be curious to see how modern audiences respond to a movie that, aside from a little CGI animation, could’ve been plucked straight out of the 1960s and dropped into theaters today. There are some zippy action sequences and big show pieces, but I’m not sure if dancing and singing is enough to hold the interest of smaller children. (My kids’ attention wandered.)

First and foremost, let’s talk about Emily Blunt taking over Julie Andrews’ first, and most famous, role. She’s terrific, and her singing is tremendous. Blunt brings some of that slight touch of imperiousness but without trying to mimic Andrews’ mannerisms. Her Mary is friendly but a little frosty. All her interactions are tinged with the certain knowledge that she will soon depart.

Still, when she first comes riding down out of the clouds, holding her umbrella and with her high heels cocked akimbo, it’s a pretty magical moment.

The story, based on the works of P. L. Travers, again has her helping out the Banks children, though a new generation. Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane ( Emily Mortimer) are now grown up, and Michael has three moppets of his own. He’s recently a widower, and money is tight in Great Depression-era London. The tale opens with a pair of bank collectors nailing an eviction notice on the door of the Banks family home.

The head banker, Wilkins (Colin Firth), offers his sympathy but we don’t really believe him; he twirls his gold pocket watch a little too flippantly. Mary Poppins arrives just in time to watch over the children -- Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) -- while Michael and Jane search desperately for the certificate of bank shares that will save the day.

(If you can’t spot where it is early on, you’re not paying attention.)

Of course, the story (screenplay by David Magee) is merely an excuse to set up adventures and singing. The score and songs are by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Scott Wittman. They’re quite good, though I’m not sure if any will go on to become as immortal as “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Super‐cali‐fragil‐istic‐expi‐ali‐docious.”

Personally, my favorites are “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” which is accompanied by some ravishing animation that the characters step into, and “Nowhere to Go But Up,” a helium-fueled flight of fancy.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, no stranger to musicals, cements the supporting cast as Jack, a working-class lamplighter who apprenticed to Bert, the Dick Van Dyke character from the original. Speaking of, Van Dyke himself pops up for a little number, showing off a nice little soft-shoe at age 92. Julie Walters is the cantankerous Banks housekeeper, Ellen.

Meryl Streep turns up as Topsy, a vaguely Slavic cousin of Mary’s who can fix most anything, when her home isn’t turned upside down. Angela Lansbury also has a bit role, and David Warner plays Admiral Boom, the retired naval office next door who insists upon firing a cannon to mark the hour, though he’s getting older and is always five minutes off.

Director Rob Marshall is a musical veteran (“Chicago,” “Nine”) who keeps things moving at a brisk pace, providing just enough characterization and story to glide us into the next razzle-dazzle musical number. This is good old-fashioned moviemaking with no ambitions beyond to entertain. But that it does, and in many spoonfuls.

Review: "Welcome to Marwen"

“Welcome to Marwen” is a strange and wonderful cinematic experience. It just may not be for you. Its combination of whimsy, tragedy and disturbing behavior isn’t going to be everyone’s bag.

I’m reminded of “Lars and the Real Girl,” which people seemed to take either as a quirky gem or utterly bewildering. If you’re in the former camp, my guess is you’ll take to “Marwen” as well.

Let’s just lay it out there: this is the tale of a damaged man who has built an elaborate replica of a fictional World War II Belgium village in his background, which he has populated with custom dolls that he arranges into various scenes and then photographs. Also, he likes wearing women’s stiletto heels.

If that description is off-putting to you, maybe toddle along your way now, without judgment. For the rest, we can get down to appreciating a film that’s decidedly off the beaten path.

It’s based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist from upstate New York. He used to be an illustrator for comic books and stuff, but he was beaten to a pulp by five thugs after an encounter in a bar because they thought he was gay. Mark isn’t -- in fact he has a (possibly more than) healthy appreciation for the female form -- but he also has a thing for women’s high heels, and drunkenly let that slip.

As the story opens Mark is physically recovered from his injuries, but the mental and spiritual scars are still wide open. Nearly all of his memories prior to the attack have been wiped clean, and he can no longer draw or barely even write.

The dolls are clearly a cathartic exercise for him. Captain Hoagie, the heroic Army Air Service pilot who was shot down near Marwen, looks just like him. In his little vignettes, Hoagie is often captured and assaulted by Nazis, in a clear recreation of his own trauma. He even has a scar over one eye, as Mark does. But the Women of Marwen, an assortment of lovely resistance fighters, always arrive to save the day.

All of the Women are based on real people in his life. Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez) is a Latina based on a co-worker at the bar (which is also where he was assaulted). Anna (Gwendoline Christie) is the Russian caregiver who brings medicine and stern lectures. Roberta (Merritt Wever) runs the local hobby shop where he buys much of his materials. Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) is an actress and showboat.

Oh, and there’s also an ancient resident witch named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who flies and has magical powers. In Mark’s world, all the girls are attracted to Hoagie, but Deja has jealously laid claim to his affections, which he chastely refuses.

The doll sequences are marvelous, with Carell and company rendered into plastic-y shapes through CGI. We feel transported into another world, which has heft and authenticity despite the cartoonish quality.

A trio of events loom to turn Mark’s world upside down. A show of his artwork his about to open. The men who nearly killed him are due to be sentenced, and the lawyers want him there to confront them, which petrifies him. And a beautiful and kind woman, Nicol (Leslie Mann), moves in across the street and offers friendship. She is soon added to the Women.

This is perhaps Carell’s most sensitive performance to date. It’s odd to think that just a handful of years ago we regarded him as a goofy TV comedian. He plays Mark as a man who is wandering and lost, but knows he needs to keep moving forward. He will take many wrong turns, and we feel his pain as our own.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote the script with Caroline Thompson, strikes a difficult balance in tone. We feel sympathy for Mark, but we’re sometimes a little scared by him, too. He’s childlike in his affections, and the women are careful to encourage his creativity without enforcing romantic feelings.

“Welcome to Marwen” is a story of trauma and redemption. We all find ways to cope with our pain. Some are healthy, some are not, some involve traditional therapy, and others take forms that we must invent for ourselves. Art, and movies, are a way.

Review: "Ben Is Back"

A lot of times a movie is disappointing because it wasn’t what you expected. But on occasion you can feel a film tilting off in a direction you don’t anticipate or even initially like, but you come to appreciate the journey it took you on. “Ben is Back” is such a film.

Julia Roberts stars as the mother of a drug-addicted young man played by Lucas Hedges. At first glimpse it seemed a lot to me like the underwhelming “Beautiful Boy” -- a look at a loving parent whose heart is twisted up dealing with a strung-out kid who always seems to fall back into a spiral. And it starts out something like that.

Ben shows up on the doorstep of his mother, Holly, unannounced on Christmas Eve. He’s been in rehab since summer and this is his first time home. Holly is shocked, surprised and delighted, though she’s been through enough ordeals to immediately start stuffing all the prescription pills and jewelry in the house into a pillow case for stashing. There are oblique references to the disastrous previous Christmas.

Ben’s sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), is the good kid who resents the prodigal son’s return -- and theft of her spotlight -- and immediately starts casting a cloud of suspicion and derision. Holly remarried Neal (Courtney B. Vance), a successful businessman who has been paying for Ben’s treatment, and they have a pair of adorable moppets.

With this dynamic laid out, I presumed the rest of the movie was going to examine the internal struggles of this blended family. Neal is supportive of Holly’s devotion to Ben, but pragmatic bordering on hostile to the kid himself. I anticipated a portrait of a seemingly placid, well-to-do clan (re)entering a vortex of crisis.

Instead, the story goes off in a very different direction. Their house is broken into while they’re at church and the family dog stolen. Ben, who wasn’t just a user but a dealer of hard drugs, immediately suspects it’s one of his old nemeses. So he and Holly go looking.

At first I thought writer/director Peter Hedges (Lucas’ real-life father) was setting up a small trip to break up the family-at-home dynamic. But then the errand turns into an expansive journey, in which the extent of Ben’s former depravity and dishonesty is played out before Holly’s horrified eyes. Indeed, it takes up the entire rest of the movie.

I first resisted this turn of the tale. I thought of other movies (“Funny People”) that started out great and then systematically flushed themselves down the toilet with an ill-thought excursion, geographically and/or metaphorically.

And yet, I found myself increasing engaged by their trip, which is truly a descent. Holly has always believed that Ben is a good kid who just went awry due to the lure of drugs. She’s a cheery suburban mom with layer of iron hidden underneath. In one arresting scene, she confronts Ben’s pediatric physician whose initial prescription of pain killers first got him hooked.

It’s one of Roberts’ best performances, full of both sympathy and snarl. Her Holly isn’t some innocent dolt who allows her hopes to overcome her grasp of reality. She goes in with eyes wide open… but then they get opened even wider.

I found Lucas Hedges’ work in “Manchester by the Sea” to be overpraised -- I could easily come up with the names of a half-dozen other actors more deserving of his Oscar nomination -- but he earns the attention he’s getting here. His Ben is a liar who will tell you he’s a liar as a disarming tactic in order to ease more deception. He’s a lost soul but not an unredeemable one.

I went into “Ben Is Back” thinking I had it all pegged, and then it turned me around and left me utterly surprised, sobered and delighted.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Reds" (1981)

"God, what a time it was, huh?"
                                --Jack Reed

Well, not really.

"Reds" has an impeccable cinematic resume. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won three -- director Warren Beatty, supporting actress Maureen Stapleton and cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. It took a year to shoot and cost a bunch of money... and made a surprisingly decent amount, too. It occasionally crops up on various "best of" lists, including the American Film Institute's roster of best epics.

And it's a dreadful, overlong bore.

The film's greatest value is in highlighting the lives and work of two relatively unsung American writers and leftist activists, John "Jack" Reed and his erstwhile wife, Louis Bryant (Diane Keaton). They were unabashed socialists in the 1910s who not only wrote sympathetically about the Russian Revolution from a front-row seat -- including Reed's seminal book, "Ten Days That Shook the World" -- but advocated for its spread to American and other shores.

Reed founded a splinter communist party in the U.S. and traveled to Russia to beg for its recognition, wound up in a Finnish prison and traveled the globe on behalf of the nascent Soviet Union, trying to spread communism. He is one of only three Americans buried in the Kremlin.

It was (and still is) a touchy subject for a mainstream movie, especially arriving in theaters in the same year that Ronald Reagan's presidency began along with a resurgent sense of national patriotism. Although I think Beatty, who co-wrote the script with Trevor Griffiths, isn't so much advocating a specific political view as offering a portrait of people who were very passionate about their beliefs.

We can argue about whether history has borne out the value of Reed and Bryant's advocacy of Marxism/Leninism -- as a center-right guy, I would offer an emphatic "no" vote -- but ultimately the film is about the people, not the politics.

The movie's biggest problem is that it can't decide if it's Louise's story, Jack's story or the story of the American communist movement. It starts out as very much from Louise's perspective, as she abandons her stable, safe life in Portland, Ore., as the wife of a prosperous dentist to follow writer/rabble-rouser Jack to New York to live a bohemian life in Greenwich Village.

We've seen this sort of thing before in the movies: intellectuals gathered in cafes or stuffed into apartments, downing booze and talking, talking, talking. Everyone's supposed to be penniless yet they always have money for rent, lavish dinners, alcohol, posh clothes and white lilies, which Jack is continually lavishing upon Louise.

She's resentful of his constant comings and goings, to either write about the labor movement or actively participate in it. Louise feels she can't found her own identity as a writer in Jack's shadow. She hates being known as just "Jack's girl" -- especially since there's been a long line of them.

Louise is mortified when she's dismissed as an intellectual lightweight by Emma "E.G." Goldman (Stapleton), a notable anarchist and guiding light for the communist movement, who later became disillusion by its implementation in Russia.

Eventually, the film leaves along with Jack on his various excursions, and it becomes his movie. The part after the intermission is a long, interminable series of meetings and rallies as characters repetitively spout revolutionary jargon at each other. First it's in New York, then in Petrograd and later in the Mideast.

An attack by counterrevolutionary forces on the train Jack is traveling aboard seems tossed in just to give the film one bona fide action scene.

Louise more or less disappears during this part of the film, other than a few snippets that show her on various journeys to come to his aid. By the time she reaches Finland, he's been gone for months. She and Jack finally reconnect in the end, just in time for him to die of typhus and deliver the quote at the top of this article as his last words.

The film was marketed as a love story, focusing on the ménage à trois involving the pair and playwright Eugene O'Neill. He's played by Jack Nicholson in a sly performance, a man who very much wants to be seen as a hard-hearted intellectual but is really a vulnerable romantic at his core. 

In truth, Nicholson is barely in the movie. He essentially has one significant sequence in which he's romancing Louise, which mostly plays out as a wordless montage of canoodling. Then he shows up again for a couple more brief scenes near the end where Louise seeks his help in rescuing Jack from his accursed Russian adventure. He has perhaps a total of 10 minutes of screen time in a very languid 3¼-hour-long movie.

Stapleton has even less of a presence, and her beating out Jane Fonda for "On Golden Pond" for the Academy Award feels like a massive error in retrospect. But it's not the first time the Oscars have gotten it wrong.

The other noteworthy thing about the movie is the inclusion of "The Witnesses." These are various contemporaries of Bryant and Reed, now very elderly, who were brought in for video interviews. They chat about their affairs, their lifestyle, their politics, the significance of their actions in the broader historical context -- a lively mix of analysis, remembrance and gossip.

Beatty weaves these interviews into the narrative cleverly, at times acting as segues from one sequence to the next, but even as narration that sets up or comments upon scenes as they're happening. They range from author Henry Miller to congressman Henry Fish, the son of Alexander Kerensky, various socialists, journalists and proto-feminists.

At times I wondered if Beatty's vision to tell the story of Jack Reed would have worked better as a documentary. If they were going to stick with a narrative work in today's cinematic climate, I'm sure the project would've ended up as a Netflix or HBO limited series. 

For me, the movie's highlight is the time Louise and Jack spend in Russia during the revolution, as they reconnect as writers and as lovers. They live, breathe and eat journalism, firing off first-hand accounts of one of mankind's most pivotal moments in history. They edit each other's stories, insisting they keep the good stuff in and cut the weaker prose out.

I can only wish the filmmakers had followed this model themselves. A much shorter movie that focused on this period would have been considerably more effective, I think. 

In addition to those I've mentioned, "Reds" has a superlative cast of supporting performers, many of whom only get a brief moment on camera. They include Edward Hermann, Paul Sorvino, M. Emmet Walsh, Gene Hackman and George Plimpton.

Beatty never intended to star in the film -- he was already 12 years older than Reed was at the time of his death when "Reds" came out -- and reportedly wanted to cast John Lithgow in the lead. (If you look at photos of Reed, his soft, cherubic features are nearly a perfect match for Lithgow's.) 

After the tremendous success of his directorial debut, "Heaven Can Wait," Beatty was a man who found himself at that rare moment in Hollywood where he could write his own ticket. In this context, "Reds" registers much as the "very important artist" moment of his career. 

He wouldn't act in another movie until 1987's notorious "Ishtar," then had a bit of a career resurgence in the '90s with "Dick Tracy," "Bugsy" and "Bullworth," and then has more or less disappeared from filmmaking and the public view while very much remaining a pop culture figure. His more recent forays, with the barely-seen "Rules Don't Apply" in 2016 and flubbing at the Oscar ceremony for "Moonlight," have somewhat dimmed the luster of his star.

Personally, I don't blame Beatty for his itinerant work. It's better to do things you truly believe in, rarely, than a whole bunch of mercenary stuff for a paycheck. But just because you have a lot of passion doesn't ensure the work is going to be any good.

Perhaps that's the ultimate, unwitting message of "Reds."

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Video review: "Venom"

“Venom” is exactly the sort of fun, forgettable movie Hollywood is in love with these days. It came out without a tremendous amount of hype, aside from diehard comic book fanboys, and proceeded to make a boatload of money.

I just saw it two months ago and I can barely remember it.

Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a hard-charging digital journalist living the dream in San Francisco. Things come crashing down in short order when he takes on a technology tycoon (Riz Ahmed) everyone thinks is nice but secretly is working on some nasty experiments. While busting into the laboratory to prove his case, Eddie gets unwillingly attached to an alien symbiote and becomes Venom.

It’s a symbiotic relationship -- if your partner was a bullying, violent ball of black tar from another planet that wants to bite off everyone’s heads. Eddie’s aware of everything going on when Venom takes over, but can’t really control it.

Powers are fairly similar to Spider-Man’s: super-strength and speed, as well as the ability to create spikes and other shapes out of its pitch-black form. Oh, and he’s got a nasty pair of choppers to make good on all the avowed head-chomping.

The action scenes are a bit muddy, and I didn’t appreciate another Tom Hardy character whose dialogue is hard to understand. He’s a great actor, but mumbling is not an aesthetic.

The Blu-ray comes with some cool bonus features, including several deleted and extended scenes, a making-of documentary, pre-visualization of some of the CGI-heavy sequences, several featurettes and a couple of music videos.

By far the coolest extra is “Venom Mode,” in which you can watch the movie with informative pop-ups throughout the movie that include comparisons with the comics and hidden references.



Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: "The Mule"

"The Mule" is a great idea for a movie that doesn't live up to its ambitions. Or rather, its ambitions aren't as lofty as they could be.

The latest from director/star Clint Eastwood has been a mystery to critics, at least those outside of New York/LA. The studio, Warner Bros., refused to screen it for regional film journalists. This is usually an indication the movie is a dog. But it's Clint Eastwood, for dang's sake, and he doesn't crank out very many clunkers, even at age 88. The total absence of "The Mule" from the awards race chatter has been mighty perplexing.

(One fine fellow I know suggests the studio is instead placing all its awards hopes on "A Star Is Born," which is probably a smart bet.)

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, an elderly horticulturist who gets caught up as a drug courier, or mule, for a Mexican cartel, transporting hundreds of kilos of cocaine at a time cross-country. He does this at first as a one-off for the money, as his farm has been foreclosed upon. Then he does it for more money, using it to replace his battered 1960s Ford pickup with a brand new black one, help pay for his granddaughter's wedding, fix up the local VFW clubhouse, etc.

But he keeps going, and going, and soon becomes the cartel's best mule. It becomes clear that Earl is doing this for more than just the cash. Maybe he just wants to feel valued again. Maybe he thinks if he spreads the cash around enough, his family will forget about what a lousy father and husband he's been.

Operating parallel to this story is that of Colin Bates, a hotshot DEA agent played by Bradley Cooper. He's chasing the legend of "Tata," this mule who transports more coke than any other, is utterly unpredictable and some say uncatchable. Of course, the secret to Earl's unpredictability is that he's an amiable old codger who likes to stop at the best eating joints, have a beer, hobnob with the locals, help a family change a flat tire, and whatnot.

It's fun and games for a while, but both story threads have the pressure ratcheted up. Earl sees the (by their standards) benevolent head of the cartel (Andy Garcia) replaced with some sterner types who insist on laying down the law.

At the same time, Bates is striking out in his months-long quest to nail Tata, and his boss (Laurence Fishburne) is getting ready to pull the plug. Bates and his partner (Michael Peñ) are putting in a lot of hours and time away from home, which places pressure on their family lives, in much the same way Earl did when he was a younger man.

"The Mule" is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, who was arrested in 2011. It's a much catchier name than Earl Stone, so I don't know why the filmmakers changed it. Nick Schenk wrote the screenplay based on a newspaper article by Sam Dolnick.

The first half of the film is almost a comedy, which turns towards tragedy in the second. Instead of driving by himself, Earl is shadowed by Mexican gangsters to make sure he stays on schedule. Of course, they stand out like a sore thumb in the places where Earl traipses.

"Two beaners in a bowlful of crackers," Earl jokes when his handlers ask him why all the white people are staring at them when they stop at a roadside BBQ joint. Earl is 90 and fought in World War II, and is past the point of being PC, or even knowing what PC is.

He also has encounters with a lesbian motorcycle gang, "Dykes on Bikes," and is corrected by an African-American family when he calls them "Negroes." These aren't contentious confrontations; Earl is friendly and his smiles are returned, his help accepted. It's almost like a fantasy safari for Trump voters.

It's an enjoyable movie, but I'm not sure what the point of it all is. Earl talks constantly about how young people need to put down their phones, eat some good food and enjoy life. This Earl does, including carrying on with young women when he stops at motels or is invited to a cartel party. He looks pretty good for 90, but I think the bundles of cash might have something to do with it.

Review: "Mary Queen of Scots"

"Mary Queen of Scots" is a very good film when it focuses on its core dynamic, the relationship between the titular character and her rival/sometime ally, Queen Elizabeth of England. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are terrific as proto-feminist icons vying with each other from afar, sharing an almost spiritual connection through their letters and envoys, even though they don't physically meet until the end.

But the movie wanders away from itself, getting caught in a thicket of Scottish court intrigue and misplacing Elizabeth for an hour or so. In the rambling narrative of civil wars, deposing of the queen followed by the immediate deposing of her deposers, double- and triple-crosses, a parade of husbands, etc., the film stumbles into a narrative bog that it never finds its way out of.

The best reasons to see it are the performances of Ronan and Robbie. Done up in balloon-bottom dresses, makeup and architecturally impressive hairdos, this is a full-on Period Costume Drama with exquisite production values. The arch language can be a little hard to understand at times, but it's not Shakespeare.

Ronan's Mary is a passionate, vibrant woman who wants to unite her kingdom, fractured by strife between Catholics and Protestants. As a Catholic who is recently a widow of the French king, she faces immediate, strident opposition from the heads of the Protestant church, who see her as a papist who bows before Rome instead of the cross.

Robbie's Elizabeth is in many ways the opposite. Regal in bearing but fractured in her soul, she is pulled and pinched by her male advisors (chiefly Guy Pearce as William Cecil) into various ill-advised courses of action. Threatened at first because Mary has a legitimate claim -- and clear ambitions -- to her own throne, she funds a civil war led by Mary's half-brother, James (James McArdle), who bounces between feelings of affection and usurpation for his sibling.

A lot of movies fudge the history in order to obtain a better story. "Mary Queen of Scots" goes the other way, sticking fastidiously to the record even when it would better to have ellipses and combining of characters. I'm not sure if you could keep all the players straight even with a playbill in hand.

Jack Lowden plays Lord Darnley, an ambitious fop who finagles his way into marrying Mary at the behest of his power-hungry father (Brendan Coyle). He thinks she will be a regular wife who allows her husband to be her king and master. But Mary uses him as a plaything, needing the hand of a British prince to cement her claim to England's throne, as well as an heir to make her a more salient prospect than the famously chaste and childless Elizabeth.

Speaking of, the film never adequately explores why Elizabeth is so resolutely sworn to virginity. She has a suitor, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), who she trusts and takes into her bed (stopping their physicality at a certain point). She has a little speech where she says she feels "more a man than a woman" because of her throne, but it's a muddled mumble of a justification. I would've loved to explore that further.

The film is directed by Josie Rourke, a veteran of the stage making her film directorial debut, from a screenplay by Beau Willimon based on a book by John Guy. It has a very "stage" feel to it, even though the cinematography by John Mathieson is wonderful. The movie has a very tactile feel it, from the elaborate costumes to the puckered surface of Elizabeth's face after she is afflicted with the pox (thus explaining the stark white makeup and bright red wig she wore later in life).

The story of two opposing female monarchs, cousins who referred to each other as sisters but often fought as enemies, would make for a frightfully interesting movie. I'm still waiting to see it.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review: "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

One thing I don’t get: why does the new Spider-Man wear sneakers? Wouldn’t that mess up his ability to stick to walls and such?

Oh, well. If that’s the worst complaint one has about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the retconned spinoff of the Spidey franchise, they’re doing alright.

After all, this is a story that brings in a half-dozen or so Spider-people from other dimensions, all battling their common nemesis, Kingpin. One’s even a pig in a miniature version of the iconic red-and-blue outfit named Peter Porker.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about yet another version of Spider-Man, with yet another actor inhabiting the role. And an animated film would make it seem too much like a TV show, I feared.

What the filmmakers have delivered is an incredibly fast-paced movie that plays like a cinematic version of flipping through a comic book, with inset images and freeze frames intruding upon the normal imagery. It seems aimed at older kids (age 8 and up, I’d guess), though it’s an enjoyable experience the whole family can enjoy.

The notion here is that in our universe, Spider-Man/Peter Parker is killed by Kingpin (voice of Liev Schreiber) at age 26 after 10 years wearing the costume. This is witnessed by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a gawky Afro-Latino teen who has just been bitten by a radioactive spider himself and started to exhibit the same powers.

Kingpin had been building a massive collider device to breach dimensions, and as a result of the experiment several other versions of Spider-Man are sucked into Miles’ reality. They range from the creepy to the comedic, starting with Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), the aforementioned porcine knockoff. Nicolas Cage does the voice of Spider-Man Noir, who is from the 1930s and wears a trench coat and fedora hat, and even is rendered in black-and-white.

There’s even two females: Gwen Stacy/Spider-Girl (Hailee Steinfeld), who wears a cool white costume, and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese girl from a distant future who wasn’t actually bitten by the spider, but instead became friends and together they battle crime in a spider-robot.

The first one Miles runs into is a version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) who’s pretty close to the “normal” one, except life hasn’t gone so well for him. He’s about 40 years old, graying and a bit paunchy, divorced from Mary Jane and only fighting crime sporadically, mostly just handing his apartment eating pizza and feeling sorry for himself.

Miles forms a bond with this Peter, who after some kvetching is eventually persuaded to act as a sort of mentor/teacher. He helps Miles bone up on the Spidey powers, as well as discovering a couple Miles has that he doesn’t: the ability to turn invisible and emit electrical charges through his hands.

I liked the colorful, perspective-bending look of the movie, which combines elements of German Expressionism, steampunk, Japanese anime and probably a few others. The film was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, the latter of whom also co-wrote the script with Phil Lord (“The Lego Movie”).

For example, Kingpin is so big that his head appears on the front of his massive body, a few feet below his shoulders. Green Goblin is reimagined as a reptilian titan, and Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hann) is a woman who sort of resembles Professor Trelawney from the Hatter Potter movies, less ditzy and more diabolical.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes a Cuisinart to the hero’s mythology, cutting everything up into bits and reassembling the pieces into other configurations. It’s a lot of fun, even if I still don’t get the shoes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: "Vox Lux"

"Vox Lux" is a movie about... something. I'm honestly not sure what. It stars Natalie Portman in the second half as a Lady Gaga-esque pop superstar struggling in her relationships with her sister, daughter and manager. In the first half the character shows how she got where she is, parlaying a horrible childhood incident into a career.

The last 20 minutes is Celeste's big comeback concert -- though don't you dare call it that -- and we're treated to an elaborate stage show of lights, pyrotechnics and exuberant dancing as Portman warbles through various techno-tweaked tunes that could have been sung by, well, anybody.

The Celeste of the first half is a sweet kid of 14 tempted by the sparkle of fame and fortune, and in the second half she's a total rhymes-with-witch who seems decades older than her 31 years, resentful of all the attention she gets while not-so-secretly feeding off it to sustain her sense of self.

All of this is accompanied by flat, emotionless narration by Willem Dafoe. It's the sort of narration that doesn't tell you anything the movie doesn't, so you wonder why it's there.

Surprisingly, it's the second half that's hard to get through. Portman plays Celeste as a shrill, nasty harpy who somehow forgot she's supposed to be the nice girl. There's no emotional match with the wide-eyed kid she was, played by Raffey Cassidy. We wonder what happened in the in-between.

I'd have liked to have seen that movie.

We follow Celeste around as she has nasty encounters with the press, with a restaurant manager who asks for a photo, with her manager (Jude Law), her sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin), her teen daughter, Albertine (Cassidy again) and well, pretty much everybody. Celeste is estranged from Ellie, who writes her songs and takes care of her kid, but gets treated like dirt for her trouble.

The first part is more interesting, when a disturbed classmate shoots up Celeste's class, wounding her seriously in the neck. She wears braces and decorative collars for the rest of the movie. After she and Ellie come up with a heartfelt song for the memorial ceremony, it becomes a national anthem. The manager (never named) is brought in to guide her, which follows a predictable path of ear-candy songs, bizarro makeup effects and squirmy dance moves.

What's the point of it all? I dunno. Writer/director Brady Corbet seems to be trying to fashion a morality tale about how even the most earnest intentions can become twisted in the caldron of the celebrity-making machine. Sounds like a terrible bargain, but not an interesting enough one to watch for two hours.

Review: "The Favourite"

“The Favourite” is a roiling tale of deception, sex, twisted friendship and power. It reminds me a lot of “Dangerous Liaisons,” in that it contains all the ingredients of a classic romance but reduced down to a fetid brine of jealousy and loathing.

It is depressing, bitingly funny and insightful about the human condition.

The story (screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) is based on real palace intrigue in the court of Queen Anne of Great Britain during the early 1800s. Widowed, plagued by ill health from a young age, never a mother after 17 (!) failed pregnancies, Anne is masterfully played by Olivia Colman as a bitter, pathetic woman overwhelmed by the throne.

Her friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), is for intents and purposes the real acting monarch. It was not uncommon in that time for women who could not officially hold a position within the British government to wield tremendous power as a “court favorite,” aka a close friend of royalty.

Sarah chides the queen like a wayward student and quietly degrades her, at point telling her her makeup makes her resemble a badger, while superficially acting as her closest friend and buttress. She acts as the queen’s go-between with ministers and generals, and since Anne is usually too sick or uninterested, Sarah really runs the show.

They even sometimes share a bed and… other forms of intimacy.

There has been some historical supposition about Anne having a lesbian relationship, but with Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a fallen noblewoman who became her chambermaid and confidante. Most historians think it’s bunk. This fictional tale supposes even further along those lines, saying it was Sarah with whom she had a romantic relationship, which became a tense ménage a trois when Abigail entered the scene.

Abigail acts as the audience’s eyes and ears during the story, coming across as a timid young woman brought low by her family’s circumstances. She’s actually Sarah’s cousin, which is how she secures a job as a scullery maid. But Abigail has a sly cunning, and ingratiates herself with the queen by concocting a poultice to relieve her painful gout.

At first Sarah is glad for the help. Not having to kowtow to Anne’s daily whims and demands, caring for her pet rabbits or rubbing her various aching limbs, allows her to spend more time at court. She vies with Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of the Tory opposition, about continuing their war with France and the tax increases necessary to do so. Decked out with poofy wig and pancake makeup, Hoult manages to be both comical and menacing.

But when Abigail extends her ingratiation as far as the queen’s bed, Sarah recognizes her as a threat and the women launch an all-out war of wills.

“The Favourite” is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, an acclaimed filmmaker from Greece whose previous efforts (“The Lobster”) have failed to charm me like others. Perhaps because he’s not a screenwriter on this project, his weird, off-putting existentialist meanderings are kept largely in check. It’s more or a less a straight story, though he often uses a distorting fisheye lens to make the posh palace seem grotesque.

It’s also surprising, considering how dark the material is, how comedy often creeps in. Stone in particular has several scenes that she turns into a laugh with just a twist of her face or the way she delivers a line of dialogue. I especially liked her character’s relationship with Masham (Joe Alwyn), a court dandy who thinks he’s seducing her but actually becomes his plaything.

The film suffers from a classic example of the filmmakers not knowing how to end it, so they just stop the story at an arbitrary point. But the abrupt finale is more than made up for by three actresses giving knockout performances.

Review: "Roma"

“Roma” is the sort of movie other filmmakers love, and audiences have to endure.

It’s a mesmerizingly beautiful film by writer/director Alfonso Cuarón, his first since “Gravity” five years ago. Shot in black-and-white and set in Mexico City during 1970-71, it’s a semi-autobiographical look at his childhood seen through the eyes of the family maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). 

The cast is largely made up of non-actors, and the camera pans slowly around as if we were standing there witnessing the various familial activities play out, documentary-style.

Problem is, the quotidian doings of most families aren’t especially interesting, and neither is this one. The first half of the movie is a dreadful bore. Children fight, servants toil, the patriarch of the family, a physician named Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) leaves for an extended business trip and is barely seen again.

I appreciate Cuarón’s attempt to summon the spirit of his family life from nearly a half-century ago. But “Roma” plays out more like home movies that run on and on, seemingly without organization or end. The director, who edits his own movies and even won an Oscar for his work, seems too love in love with his own footage to carve out the fat.

The movie does finally gain some momentum in the last hour, when it becomes clear to the mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), that her husband is not coming back. The kids slowly wise up to the reality of their situation, and the normal sibling antagonisms get ratcheted up to a frightful level.

Cleo’s budding romance with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a rough sort from the other side of the tracks, takes an abrupt turn with a potentially life-changing development. Fermín is a devotee of martial arts, and I’m sure the most talked about scene will be his fully nude demonstration of his skills for Cleo using a hotel bathroom shower rod as a makeshift staff.

I’m puzzled as to what Cuarón hoped to accomplish with this scene. I think he intended it to be dramatic and even a little scary, but it plays more like a pornographic Bruce Lee spoof.

The family has four children, three boys and a girl, ranging from roughly age 6 for the youngest up to about 12. Only the oldest boy, Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), is given anything like a distinct personality, as he continually rebels against his mother’s authority in his father’s absence. The other kids register as a sort of blur, horsing around in the background while Cleo is working, or making spoiled demands for ice cream or movie trips.

I’m not opposed to slow-moving movies. I nearly put “Ghost Story” in my top 10 list last year, and that contains a 10-minute scene of Rooney Mara doing nothing but eating pie.

But “Roma” has a self-indulgent listlessness that serves not to draw us in, but push us out. The experience of watching is a very pure form of cinema: observation without any sort of emotional intrusion.

Cleo is a cinematic construct for looking at the family, not a fleshed-out character unto herself. I believe Cuarón is trying to make some sort of statement about power dynamics, and how Cleo is essentially their beloved servant who’s almost a piece of property.

Trouble is, by not giving the character anything like an interior, he uses her just as badly as a filmmaker.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Video review: "Smallfoot"

“Smallfoot” is a better idea than movie. The twist is that in this story, bigfoots really exist, except to them we’re the mythological and frightening creatures. It’s a cool concept that gets watered down into a standard kiddie film with boingy action and a slathered-on life-lessons theme.

Channing Tatum voices Migo, a young yeti who is about to take over the prestigious job of gong-ringer. This means making the sun rise by catapulting himself across their Himalayan mountain village and slamming his head into a massive gong. His dad (Danny DeVito) has held the position for many years, and has literally shrunk in the job.

A lot of the things the yetis do are like that -- they’re fun but don’t make much sense. Still, it’s a bustling place with a lot of joy.

They have some strange laws, though, enforced by the stoic Stonekeeper (Common), who wears a robe consisting of stone tiles, each one inscribed with a law known to be true. One of them reads, “There is no such thing as a smallfoot.” Odd that they would have a word and a rule for something that supposedly doesn’t exist.

Soon enough Migo stumbles across a real smallfoot, aka human, in the form of Percy Patterson (James Corden), a down-market wildlife television personality who has come to the Himalayas in order to fake a bigfoot sighting and pump up his ratings. Then he runs into the real thing, they become fast friends and Migo takes him back to his mountaintop village.

This puts him in conflict with the Stonekeeper and the yetis’ entire belief system. But with a few musical numbers and antics, everything will turn out all right.

“Smallfoot” is animation for the whole family, or at least the sort under age 10. It’s a perfect movie for home video, since parents can hit the ‘play’ button and then find something better to do.

Video extras are decent, and include a new animated short, “Super Soozie,” about a yeti toddler. There’s also a sing-along mode, three music videos and a couple of making-of featurettes.



Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: "At Eternity's Gate"

When Willem Dafoe was still young, there was something about him that seemed quite ancient. Now that he’s older, he retains an eerie vitality that allows him to effortlessly play a man three decades younger than himself.

Many say the art of Vincent van Gogh is similar ageless.

Here was a man quite literally obsessed with his work, and yet he only sold a single painting during his short lifetime. “At Eternity’s Gate” is a chronicle of his last, lonely days living in the tiny villages of Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, where he cranked out an astonishing body of work that will live on in immortality.

I’ll confess, at first I was put off by yet another film about van Gogh. Just last year we had “Loving Vincent,” an Oscar-nominated animated movie that used imagery by modern painters to relate the story.

And yet I found “At Eternity’s Gate” to be a breath of fresh air. Dafoe gives a transformative performance as the artist, depicting a man as wrapped up by his own demons as his desire to share his vision of how he sees the world.

Rather than portraying von Gogh as a man who made great art despite his mental instability, director Julian Schnabel, who co-wrote the script with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière, shows them as inextricably entwined.

Dafoe’s lean, rawboned face turns out to be a surprisingly good match for the features shown in van Gogh’s various self-portraits. The photography by Benoît Delhomme is stunning, with many wordless passages of him just wandering around the French countryside, feeling inspired and feverishly getting it down on canvass.

Rupert Friend plays his brother, Theo, who supports him financially and, on the rare occasions when they’re in the same place, emotionally. They have a very tender moment where Theo comes to the asylum where Vincent has been committed, and cuddles him just as they did on cold nights as boys.

Oscar Isaac makes an impression as fellow painter and friend Paul Gauguin, who is angry and confident to van Gogh’s placid timidity. Both struggled to establish themselves in the face of Impressionism, but while van Gogh wanted to evolve from it and create a new form painting builton what he called “sunshine,” Gauguin rejected the old masters entirely. (Though he concedes Monet is “not bad.”)

Mads Mikkelsen and Mathieu Amalric play, respectively, a priest who struggles to reconcile van Gogh’s faith in God with paintings he considers to be ugly and disturbing, and Dr. Paul Gachet, one of van Gogh’s doctors and the subject of one of his most famous paintings.

The film’s title comes from one of van Gogh’s lesser-known works (if there is such a thing), “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate).” Van Gogh speaks about his love for painting nature, musing that while flowers may fade and wilt, his capturing of them in paint will live on -- or at least have a chance to.

I liked how the film handled van Gogh’s infamous ear cutting. Rather than fetishizing the incident, Schnabel treats it as just one more episode for a man who struggled to reconcile the real world with the disparate, chaotic one he experienced in his mind. After the incident, the director depicts it by just having Dafoe’s head turned away from that side.

Lovely and insightful, “At Eternity’s Gate” celebrates the art of Vincent van Gogh without trying to obscure the madness and genius of the man behind it.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Red River" (1948)

Plantin' and readin'. Plantin' and readin'. Fill a man full of lead, stick him in the ground, and then read words at him. Why, when you kill a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?
                                                           --Simms Reeves
I love it when screenwriters give some of the best dialogue to minor characters. That's a hallmark of 1948's "Red River," directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan. It's a big picture with an intimate feel, not to mention one of the darkest-themed Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Frequent Wayne collaborator John Ford is said to have remarked after seeing the film, "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!"

Personally, I think "The Searchers" was the apotheosis of the grimmer side of Wayne's star persona, but "Red River" certainly deserves a spot among his better performances.

The quote above comes from the frequent Western player Hank Worden, known for his stick frame, bald head and high moan of a voice. It's a reference to Wayne's character, pioneer cattleman Thomas Dunson, who has a habit of shooting dead anybody who opposes him, including his own cowboys, but always insisting upon a proper burial and Bible reading the morning after.

All his killings seem to conveniently take place in the evening so as not to interrupt the massive cattle drive he's currently undertaking from Texas to Missouri. The story is a fictionalized version of the first major drive in 1865 on the Chisholm Trail, which actually goes to Kansas. (More on that in a minute.)

Dunson has spent the better part of the last 15 years building up the largest beef herd in all of Texas, only to find himself destitute with no market for his cattle. So he resolves to drive 10,000 head 1,000 miles to Missouri. He doesn't even have enough cash to pay his men, only the promise of triple pay if and when they should reach the market.

"Red River" is chockablock with interesting side characters and throwaway lines of dialogue. Screenwriters Borden Chase and Charles Schnee received an Oscar nomination for their story, based on Chase's story in the Saturday Evening Post. It contains the usual Western tropes of six-shooter duels, marauding Indians and womenfolk tempting cowboys to leave the trail in favor of more civilized town life.

The other Academy Award nod was for Christian Nyby's editing, which may literally have saved the film from extinction. Originally shot in 1946, "Red River" wasn't released until two years later as Hawks sought to tighten the narrative, and also was sued by Howard Hughes, who thought the finale too similar to his from "The Outlaw." Brennan recorded a narration which was used to replace written journal entries that pop up from time to time, but that cut of the film was lost for decades until it was reassembled from the Criterion Collection release a few years ago.

The version I saw is not that one, and still includes the journal pop-ups, which as Hawks feared are fleeting and difficult to read.

Brennan plays Groot (!), another in a long line of cantankerous oldsters in his repertoire. He's more sensible than some of his other soft-headed characters, showing fierce loyalty to Dunson but only up to a point. The story opens with just the two of them breaking off from a wagon train to stake their own claim across the Red River in Texas.

Dunson leaves behind a bountiful lass (Coleen Gray) who pretty well throws herself at him, insisting he take her along, but the lonesome prairie is no place for a woman and all that. He gives her his mother's bracelet as a promise to send for her, but hours later the pioneers are massacred by Indians, one of who wears the trinket as a prize.

Consigned to lifelong bachelorhood (read: cantankerous chastity), Dunson takes a young boy who escaped the attack, Matt Garth, as his ward and heir apparent. He admires that the lad, shell-shocked by the killing of his family, still has the wherewithal to pull a pint-sized gun on Dunson when he slaps the boy to his senses.

"He'll do," Dunson mutters to Groot in admiration.

Years later Matt has just returned from the Civil War a seasoned leader and gunfighter. Dunson appoints him trail master of 30 or so cowpunchers, with Groot driving the chuck wagon. As the trail goes on and the troubles pile up, Dunson becomes increasingly dictatorial and hard-handed, shooting several deserters or would-be mutineers.

Matt, now played by Montgomery Clift, obediently knuckles under and keeps the men (mostly) in line. But when one lunkheaded idjit (Ivan Parry) causes a stampede by clanking some pots while stealing some sugar, resulting in the death of one man and 300 lost head, Dunson insists on whipping the transgressor. When the man refuses to accept this debasement, Matt shoots him in the shoulder to prevent the boss from giving him one between the eyes.

Soon Dunson is barely sleeping and drinking all the time, a paranoid petty tyrant of the plains.

Things finally come to a head when Dunson wants to hang some deserters, and Matt opposes him, essentially leading an ad-hoc mutiny. The older man vows to catch up to Matt and kill him, and for the rest of the movie the audience is looking over his shoulder right along with him.

They finally make it to Abilene, turning west to avoid the bandits attacking every cattle drive, and because they heard there's a new railroad stop there. There Matt again meets up with Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), a plucky gal and member of another wagon train the boys saved from Indians along the way, and they fall hard for each other.

(Including the usual heavily-implied but in-no-way-depicted sex.)

The final showdown between Dunson and Matt is energetic, if a little soft-headed. Dunson has recruited a dozen or so hard gunmen to accompany him, but then insists on a mano-e-mano face-off with Matt. Matt refuses to draw his gun, even when Dunson shoots his hat off and grazes his cheek. I loved Clift's surly, sneering defiance in this scene.

They trade guns for fists, until the scuffle is broken up by Tess when she holds them both at gunpoint and essentially forces them to hug it out. Dunson's fevered spell is immediately broken, and he's back to smiles and treating Matt as his adopted son.

This doesn't really play for me. If Dunson never intended to kill Matt, then why round up a crew and come after him? In the original published story, Dunson is slain by Cherry Valance (John Ireland), a deadly gun they took on at the start of the drive. But a movie can't end with John Wayne gunned down -- at least not unless it's his last film, "The Shootist," which coincidentally this film uses footage from in the flashback scenes.

Cherry is the darkling yang to Matt's yin, both skilled gunfighters with a lot of bravado and grit. In an early scene, they trade pistols and impress each other with some sharpshooting.

It seems destined that the two will eventually come to blows and/or bullets -- several other characters make this observation explicitly -- but interestingly, they never do, forming a grudging friendship. I would have loved to seen a sequel where the pair light out for some adventures of their own.

A few other notables from the cast:
  • Harry Carey Sr. plays the friendly businessman in town eager to scoop up the beef, and his son Jr. is the unfortunate cowboy who got squished in the stampede. His dream was to buy his wife a pair of red shoes, which is a pretty meager dream.
  • Shelley Winters has one of her earliest screen roles (uncredited) as a dance hall girl. Ditto for Richard Farnsworth, playing a background cowboy.
  • Chief Yowlachie plays Quo, an Indian scout who wins a poker hand against Groot in which he has staked a 50 percent interest in his set of false teeth. I loved his line, "From now on, I will be known as Two Jaw Quo." He lets the cook have his teeth back for eating, but otherwise carries them around in a little pouch like a totem.
"Red River" is a mighty fine-looking picture, with a lot of lush scenes of the American prairie. Although I would've loved to see a version of this movie shot a few years later with Technicolor and CinemaScope. Hawks skillfully maneuvers his camera to make a herd of cattle number maybe a few hundred to resemble 10,000, though I admit it gets a little old watching a parade of hooves go by. In one memorable shot, he pans his camera 360 degrees around the ranch.

Originally just seen as another workaday Western, the reputation of "Red River" has grown with the years, and was even named the fifth-best ever of its genre by the American Film Institute. That's a bit over the top, methinks, but it's definitely a surprisingly hard-bitten tale that rides high in the saddle.