All hail Saoirse Ronan! As the titular star of Josie Rourke’s absorbing mostly historical drama Mary Queen of Scots (B), the fierce young actress adds to her sterling repertoire of strong female roles and brings pulse pounding verve to what could have been a dull period piece. The actress is commanding and imaginative and summons viewers to follow her anywhere. Eschewing some of the wilder audacity of another costume drama on the market right now, Rourke’s entertaining film is straightforward in plot and purpose, but it’s a fitting and feminist take on what royal women have to do to maintain power even as sovereigns surrounded by manipulative men. Under pancaked prosthetics, Margot Robbie successfully disappears into the role of Elizabeth I of England, rival to the throne versus Ronan’s Mary Stuart of Scotland. The film gets high marks for inclusive casting and upping stakes often as the women contemplate various pathways to extend their respective royal bloodlines. In addition to the strong women, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester and Ismael Cruz Córdova shine in the ensemble. The film handles a few pivotal sequences a bit oddly, but overall it’s rousing.
For a physical production practically perfect as Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns (C+), its makers should have spent some tuppence on the sequel’s songs and screenwriting and provided its glum protagonist with a jolly holiday from all the topsy turvy plot contrivances. The lavish set design, resplendent costumes and meticulous vintage Disney animation are all in fine form, and the movie opens and closes very, very well. There’s just a lot of filler material that’s super- califragilstic- expiali- average in between. Emily Blunt’s taciturn take on London’s cloud nanny gets a bit eclipsed in all the madcappery, and Marshall’s tenuous grasp of tone does few favors for Ben Whishaw, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep or Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latter projecting for the balcony seats even though he’s on the Cherry Tree Lane where it happens. While passive protagonist MP tries to save two generations of Banks children from eviction and from their own imaginative inertia, it’s unclear for whom the audience is even supposed to cheer. Plus the youngest kids (the true heart of the film) frankly seem pretty well adjusted at the beginning of the movie. Marshall brings little dazzle dazzle in the form of fresh choreography, aside from a song trying to make fetch happen for lamp lighters (was that a skateboard ramp at one point?) And oh, don’t name check the bird lady just to wing-flap out of another plot hole. Despite the lovely craft, the art of the film’s storytelling is lacking. The fact that there’s not one single element this belated sequel improves on over the original shouldn’t sway families from seeing it, and there are indeed some tender and nostalgic moments; but this spoonful of chutzpah proves mild tonic.
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 Carell’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.
Alfonso Cuarón’s family drama set in a middle class Mexico City neighborhood in the early 1970s, Roma (B), is an elegiac tribute to his family’s real housekeeper who was a steady presence as the family slowly splintered. Told with a sweeping tableaux of intimate and epic moments, photographed in black and white 65 millimeter glory and using rich natural sounds without an underscore to accompany several Spanish language dialects, the film is a roaring technical achievement. Tracking shots of bustling city life, a youth revolt and an ocean vista are among its most stunning. The burden of narrative is carried largely on the shoulders of first-time actress Yaritza Aparicio, and she is marvelously revelatory and relatable. A lot happens and also not very much. There’s a long stretch of cleaning house and talking to the dog. There are multiple sequences of the family children talking but not saying much. But then the protagonist is hoisted into a world of opulent cityscapes, profound joy and grief and even a moment or two of genuine action against the backdrop of rising political unrest and tension. Cuarón beautifully and fully recreates the squalor and splendor of his semi-autobiographical childhood memories with his camera floating through its settings and subjects as if caught up in a dream. The storytelling is spare and lacks dramatic characterizations and fully realized linkages to match the power of the visuals. See it in theatres if you can, but even on Netflix, prepare to behold the panoramas of gorgeous moviemaking.
There’s a whole new convention for comic book aficionados, and it arrives in the form of a brilliantly conceived and rendered animation style and congregation of fringe superheroes. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (B) is a triumph of visuals and tone, capturing comic book aesthetic and tongue in cheek escapism. The story sputters out a bit midway amidst the kaleidoscopic New York set pieces, layered characters with text bursts and eye-popping swirls and swatches of dimensional color. The inclusive film explores a multiverse of Spider-Man personas converging, which gives us a half African-American/half Puerto Rican protagonist, female fighter, film noir hero and anime Spidey in the mix for confrontation with audacious baddies. Shameik Moore, Jake Johnston, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Nicolas Cage are among the voice talents. It’s fun for both purists and first-timers to the arachni-phile adventurer pantheon with an awesome message true to the late Stan Lee’s vision that everyone can be a hero.
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 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.