This is a case of a director already known for playing with too many toys still trying to build a better mousetrap while the perfectly good cheese sitting right before him simply needs a more restrained pairing. Robert Zemeckis’s treacly Welcome to Marwen (D+) dramatizes events about a real-life artist who, after experiencing a traumatic assault rendering him frail and without memory, picks up the pieces through building a miniature city populated with dolls representing the support system and demons he must confront in his healing. Steve Carrell’s sincere central performance isn’t well served by the director’s fussy technical gobbledegook and cloying blasts in tone between an unreal real world and a half-baked fantasy story. The filmmaker constantly pays self-homage to many of his other, better works and transports viewers right out of the moment (was a Back to the Future flying time travel device or a backwards Death Becomes Her head entirely necessary in telling this tender tale?). The dolls are unappealing stiffs, waxy and wobbly in the same way Zemeckis’s Polar Express characters’ eyes were moribund. It looked too much like the Team America squad had arrived to teach everybody a manipulative morality play. The first half of the film was so deficient in dialogue and storytelling that it was a pleasant surprise midway for some strangely moving moments to claw through all the claptrap. Singular acting kudos go to Leslie Mann, fun to watch with all her wonder and whimsy in an underwritten role. The story’s occasional snatches of sentiment are undercut by the filmmaker’s balderdash, tossing in hate crimes and opioid addiction subplots just in case there’s anything else of seeming significance he can trot out onto the playroom floor. Simply unable to let the allegorical material speak for itself, gadget happy Zemeckis is still playing in his Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump met Beowulf world while his ho-Hummell misfire plops into the porcelain pot.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (C+) is a bawdy tale of women behaving very badly, set in early 18th century Britain under the reign of Queen Anne, and its fine acting and perversely wicked sense of humor against the backdrop of a royal costume drama are not enough to recommend it. Rachel Weisz is delicious as the Duchess of Marlborough, confidant, advisor and secret lover to the queen. Enter Emma Stone, the duchess’s younger cousin from a disgraced side of the family, who works her way from scullery maid to the royal inner circle. The actress is fittingly stone cold in her role as ruthless protagonist vying for affections of the monarch. Sometimes at the center of it all and sometimes like a character in her own universe, Olivia Colman plays an utterly idiosyncratic queen, flanked by a mini kingdom of rabbits representing her deceased children and wailing from gout pain as she slithers, rolls and tumbles through a palace filmed in fisheye lenses. The grotesquerie of oneupmanship is often amusing but also often pretentious and pointless. Like the queen at the center of the story, the puckish director has fashioned imperial clothing of tonal delirium, and it doesn’t wear well for long.
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Life’s a glitch for the best friends from the ‘80s arcade as they venture out into the worldwide web in Rich Moore and Phil Johnston’s uneven computer generated sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet (C). The great leap from the first film’s nostalgia fueled highjinks into the swirl of modernity is fraught with glaring shifts in tone and tenor, with voice actors John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman doing their darndest to keep the joy elevated. The best bits involve a woke encounter on a Disney princess fan site and a musical number set in a dystopian urban racing game. The animation is above average, and some of the jokes land, but not enough. The final reel is so off the rails, a blue screen of death would be preferable.
Steven Caple Jr.’s Creed II (B) – or “Rocky VIII” as some have termed it – has a serious case of history repeating with throwbacks to the notorious Drago-Creed and Balboa-Drago fights behind the Iron Curtain. Despite following the sports series’ rather prescriptive formula, though, this entry injects some pretty heavyweight domestic drama into the mix surrounding the big showdown. Michael B. Jordan takes a little while to get in the swing of things but regains gravitas in an impressive physical and emotional performance. Sylvester Stallone (also credited as a co-writer) is again a delight in his supporting perch. Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad are wonderful as the women who complement and challenge the powerhouse protagonist. While there are some significant lulls, the overall effect is swift and surefooted. In Caple’s capable hands and with some fun cameos to reward longtime fans of the series, this fight film certainly takes flight.
The National Board of Review (NBR) announced its winners, including a list of 2018’s Top Ten Films, to be formally awarded January 8, 2019, in NYC. The inspirational ’60s race relations dramedy Green Book (first prize as best picture and for one of its leading men) and the music-filled romance remake A Star Is Born (three of the top acting prizes) have been crowned the new frontrunners of awards season, with Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal black and white foreign language film Roma a distant third place in terms of awards season momentum.
Many films’ Academy Awards chances are boosted by these accolades, but don’t count out buzzy royalty fantasia The Favourite, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice, Steve McQueen’s struggling but spectacular heist drama Widows, Spike Lee’s neglected but brilliant BlacKkKlansman or late-year entry The Mule (not screened for NBR voters, and director/lead actor Clint Eastwood has had late-breaking films enter the fray before) to score nominations come Oscar time.
Faring well in today’s NBR nominations is popular streaming service Netflix, home of both The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and also the upcoming Roma. Both are now screening in select cities theatrically, and Buster Scruggs can be streamed right now. Little-seen indies from the first half of the year, First Reformed and Eighth Grade, plus blockbuster popular and critical hits from early this year, Black Panther and A Quiet Place, just picked up lots of momentum. Emily Blunt appears to be a factor in upcoming awards as love for both her films, A Quiet Place and Mary Poppins Returns, seems apparent in these votes.
I’ve hyperlinked to movies reviewed on this site. Let the awards season begin!
Best Film: Green Book
Best Supporting Actor: Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Original Screenplay: Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Best Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Animated Feature: Incredibles 2
Breakthrough Performance: Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Best Directorial Debut: Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade
Best Foreign Language Film: Cold War
Best Documentary: RBG
Best Ensemble: Crazy Rich Asians
William K. Everson Film History Award: The Other Side of the Wind and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
NBR Freedom of Expression Award: 22 July
NBR Freedom of Expression Award: On Her Shoulders
Top Films of 2018 (alphabetical, I presume we see these as the ten movies nipping at the heels of Green Book)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
If Beale Street Could Talk
Mary Poppins Returns
A Quiet Place
A Star Is Born
Top 5 Foreign Language Films
Happy as Lazzaro
Top 5 Documentaries
Crime + Punishment
Minding the Gap
Three Identical Strangers
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Top 10 Independent Films
The Death of Stalin
Lean on Pete
Leave No Trace
The Old Man & the Gun
Sorry to Bother You
We the Animals
You Were Never Really Here
In a year of breakthrough films by African-American directors, of black excellence, panthers and klansmen, of Beale Street scuttlebutt and warrior widows, an unlikely white director has also hopped on the race relations bandwagon, helming a durable and crowd pleasing vehicle that’s worthy of more than a footnote. In fact, there’s something about director Peter Farrelly, best known for gross-out comedies, that yields a consistently bright and triumphant tone for Green Book (A-), elevating a true story to modern classic status. This 60s-set dramedy features Viggo Mortensen as a white nightclub bouncer who takes a job as driver and security for a black piano prodigy played by Mahershala Ali on a multi-state concert tour, guided by the titular journal about how to stay on a straight and narrow path through the segregated Deep South. The central performances are authentic and lived in, with Mortensen chewing the scenery and any food in sight as a portly pugilist with buckets to learn and Ali lending delicate dignity swirled with a worldly virtuoso to a lonely character who finds himself a multiple outcast in his own skin. The buddy comedy elements of the film are fittingly amusing and often revelatory, so it’s heartening when Farrelly resists most hamfisted impulses even when the narrative takes dramatic detours. Combined with lovely music, impeccable art direction and two of the most iconic performances of the year, it’s old-fashioned Hollywood manipulation that’s hard to resist. While film historians may claim one must choose between the likes of a more traditional tale such as Driving Miss Daisy or a gut-punch of modern cinema such as Do the Right Thing to chronicle the racial reconciliation agenda, there’s spotlight aplenty for multiple lenses addressing America’s most complex questions when it bubbles up from the right spirit. Farrelly’s film is more Miss Daisy/Hoke Colburn or Andy Dufresne/Red territory on the moviemaking map, but even a familiar road to redemption filled with such grace notes so gorgeously played is well worth treading.
This film goes from shock and awe to aw, shucks way too abruptly. Memoir adapter and director Joel Edgerton continues in his horror milieu with Boy Erased (C+), exposing life in a gay conversion therapy center as a form of interior and institutional terror. It’s a bit of a low-key rainbow hued Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted and is extraordinarily effective until it isn’t. In the pro column is the protagonist, a preacher’s son magnificently played by Lucas Hedges, whose heartache and aim to please is palpable. He’s one of the great actors of his generation, and he sells a sometimes hackneyed narrative with dignity and verve. In the con camp are all adult characters: the ex-gay Grand Poobah himself played with little nuance by Edgerton and the conflicted parents played by Nicole Kidman (generally effective if a little treacly) and Russell Crowe (a career worst performance with stone cold lack of subtly). Told awkwardly with occasional flashbacks, there is genuine suspense in some surprisingly bleak moments; other times, the detached hero hovers emotionally above his melancholy surroundings, robbing sequences of conflict. There’s a through line of cautionary importance to this exposé of all-too-common reprogramming procedures. But the final act offers too tidy a resolution. More like goodwill erased.
Transplanting a British miniseries to modern day Chicago centering on a quarter of women completing a heist started by their late husbands, Steve McQueen’s mystery/drama Widows (A) is juicy, layered, intense and phenomenal. Buoyed by an excellent Viola Davis as the central protagonist (her late husband is inspired casting: Liam Neeson) and boasting an across the board fabulous ensemble, the film roars with thrilling intensity while always keeping the characters grounded in reality. McQueen organically laces into his vigilante milieu themes of racial and gender inequality and empowerment, cycles of crime and violence and the tenuous ecosystem of gangland and political turf. The film is ultimately a fugue on who’s playing one another in an elaborate urban powder-keg, with subtle shifts and surprises keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Despite topicality, it’s extremely entertaining. Kudos to Elizabeth Debicki, who shape shifts in a complex emotional role as an abused woman discovering her power, and Daniel Kaluuya who plays against type as a cold-blooded criminal. Robert Duvall and Colin Ferrell are also superb as a father-son political dynasty brokering alliances in a corrupt neighborhood. The film is not for the faint of heart and doesn’t pull back from showing the evil that men do. Expect to see Viola Davis honored for characteristically superb work – she’s daring, direct and dramatically controlled – and it would be wonderful if McQueen’s thoughtful female-led thriller catches fire at the box office and awards season.
Note: This film will be available in wide release theatrically November 16, 2018.
A much more subtle breakout than Moonlight for writer/ director Barry Jenkins, his adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (B) tells the story of an African-American woman (newcomer KiKi Layne) who seeks to clear the name of her wrongly convicted husband (Stephan James) and prove his innocence before the birth of their child in 1970s New York. Jenkins fashions the central couple as Adam and Eve style innocents against a blistering backdrop of racism in the housing and justice system, humanizing their personal struggles while commenting on the universality of the Black Experience alluded to in the film’s title. Both romantic leads are stunning and emotive but often are overloaded vessels for the filmmaker’s myriad parade of topical issues. Despite the artisan lens Jenkins places on the adaptation, the central story comes across as a bit dramatically inert and doesn’t side-wind its way into consistent focus. The film is most successful when showcasing the solidarity of the central family, and Regina King and Colman Domingo are outstanding as the protagonist’s courageous parents. Jenkins collaborators such as composer Nicholas Britell and cinematographer James Laxton lend their greatness to the film; it’s a technically exquisite work. While it’s impossible not to be moved by the humanity of Jenkins’s characters, he could have reached further to crystallize storytelling and to more urgently serve these characters who rarely get their cinematic due.
If you’ve self-selected as curious about Bryan Singer’s Queen rock and roll biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (B), you will undoubtedly find yourself floating around in ecstasy at how the troubled production turned out. A star is reborn onscreen and his Gaga is radio ready as Rami Malek fully inhabits the role of flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury. This “behind the music” style melodrama is too often color by numbers, but Malek – a power ballad powerhouse in every frame – helps the film transcend the limitations of the form and, well, break free. The story dispenses with a series of greatest hits moments such as band origin story, early studio time, world tours and setbacks and is equally enjoyable in moments of grandeur and intimacy. Told with a lack of sentimentality and with pleasurable details and detours, the film strips down myths and legends and aptly showcases how some of the best songs surfaced. It’s fun to see how some of the zanier tunes emerged and how on trend this unconventional band was during its brief life as a quartet of outcasts. There are a few music tracks such as “Who Wants to Live Forever?” and “Another One Bites the Dust” which take on added poignancy given Mercury’s struggles with relationships and fading health. By the time the film culminates in a reenactment of the band’s famous Live Aid reunion performance, the audience is bought in completely. The ensemble is solid with no extraordinary standouts except Malek who transforms body and voice and should emerge an awards season champion. Malek’s Freddie is certainly somebody to love in a surprisingly deft crowd pleaser.
There’s a fascinating film sub-genre of true stories so outlandish you can scarcely believe they really happened – Argo, BlacKkKlansman, Catch Me If You Can, to name a few – and then there’s the real tale of author Lee Israel, whose potent mix of career desperation, misanthropism and alcoholism signals exactly why she got involved in a larger-than-life game of cat and mouse. As magnificently portrayed by Melissa McCarthy in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? (B+), with a sharp and sassy script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty based on Israel’s memoirs, the protagonist is laid off, late on rent and veterinary bills, divorced from reality and falls into a con of counterfeiting personal letters by novelists and playwrights to sell to collectors so she can fund her desperate lifestyle in early ’90s New York City. This is a film that quite clearly depicts life on the margins and how a pile-up of poor decisions and bad luck can foist someone into a sticky spot. Like dramatic-mask Jerry Lewis or Robin Williams, McCarthy demonstrates the reverse clown effect, depicting the the mentally anguished machinations and nuances behind a crowd pleaser (in this case Lee Israel is a famed autobiography writer whose style falls out of favor). McCarthy is joined for career-best performances by Richard E. Grant, a boozy buddy who discovers a sly synergy with a similarly broken spirit. Grant is glorious and adds to the glow of McCarthy’s superb acting. Jane Curtain is also wonderful in a small part as Israel’s beleaguered agent. This highly observant film, with its taut balance of dark themes, could teeter at any time into oblivion of heartache and histrionics but maintains an oddly indomitable optimism. Credit goes to Heller’s command of the material, a real and raw script and marvelous performers, who together manage to fashion the experience into a bit of a love letter to the Big Apple, albeit one that’s a bit rotten to the core. The movie will reward the well-read with its droll references to Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Kate Hepburn and Fanny Brice as well as viewers who simply come to witness McCarthy and Grant display roles of a lifetime. Different from a Barfly, Ironweed or Leaving Las Vegas, the film isn’t so concerned about its subjects’ alcoholism as an isolated character trait; it’s a full portrait of how people get by. Unlike the doctored documents Israel concocts to escape from reality, the film’s indelible characters are the genuine article.