Mimi Leader’s On the Basis of Sex (B) takes a page out of the Spielberg Lincoln playbook by telling the story of a pivotal player in American life through the lens of a single subplot that succinctly illuminates an individual’s singular belief system. In this new movie, that person is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (also chronicled in an awesome recent documentary RBG); and she’s splendidly embodied by Felicity Jones, playing the part with a quiet ferocity. Opposite a game Armie Hammer as her supportive lawyer husband and opposite old-fashioned adversaries played by the likes of Sam Waterston, Jones’s Ginsburg gets a lovely pedestal on which to shine. She’s most rousing in the moments in the margins, like when she notices she’s being fetishized by a make job interviewer or when she realizes her teen daughter has inherited her stubbornness. Her public performances lack some of their intended punch, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the case setting her destiny in action. The filmmakers were shrewd to choose a rather cut and dry example of discrimination on which to base the film’s central narrative; there were certainly pricklier scenarios they could have spotlighted which would have challenged the director and audience more. The storytelling is a bit predictable but still very lovingly rendered, and it’s a thrilling showcase of both actress and subject. In these times, there can hardly be enough films like this.
Although there’s nary a line as memorable as Gran Torino’s “Get off my lawn!” this time around, Clint Eastwood’s The Mule (B+) continues the actor/auteur’s loving curmudgeonly entreaty to the next generation to be kind to people even when the words coming from your mouth fail to express it, to take time for those you love even if you weren’t always great at this gesture in the past, to seek inner peace inside your family over the clarion calls of the outside world and to quit living on your damn cellphone. Eastwood as both director and leading man imparts his brilliant life lessons through an unconventional, deliberately paced tale and brings out lived-in performances from cast mates ranging from Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña as federal agents, Andy Garcia and Ignacio Serricchio as drug-lords and Dianne Wiest as the protagonist’s estranged ex-wife. The plot answers the question about what second career an old-school gardener can take in the internet age, and it’s not greeter at the local discount superstore. Eastwood’s enlistment as an inauspicious 90-year-old drug courier for a ruthless Mexican cartel provides the spry senior with a new job involving seeing the countryside, singing along to favorite radio oldies and procuring ample envelopes of cash, before the runs get increasingly dangerous. Many of Eastwood’s late-career (or is this mid-career?) films contemplate Big Issues, and he and screenwriter Nick Shenk (the man behind the words of Torino as well) do a splendid job balancing tangible tension and action, a marvelously relatable flawed hero and a small dusting of issues related to crime, class and race to be sorted out at your own leisure. Some mild quibbles include the hero’s occasional muttering of self-conscious soliloquy under his breath, inconsistencies about his spectrum of naiveté, some tender moments that get a little too treacly and pacing that could be a good bit tighter. But overall Eastwood’s metaphors are in full bloom, and he’s no passive rider in chronicling the American story. He’s still a major voice making movies that matter.
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.
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.
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.
Based on a popular young adult novel and ripped out of today’s headlines, George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give (B+) features the remarkable Amandla Stenberg as a black teenager trapped between two worlds: her family’s historic inner city neighborhood and the posh suburban private school where she tries to fit in which largely white classmates. Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall are among the cast’s spectacular standouts playing the heroine’s parents trying to protect her from emotional and physical harm as she witnesses a controversial police shooting of a childhood friend. Stenberg is an unlikely mouthpiece for the film’s issues and is phenomenal and relatable in the role. Although it’s clear where the film’s point of view lies, the film does a good job bringing lots of perspectives into the fray. Common plays a black cop with one of the most poignant sequences about the complexity of contemporary issues. Tillman keeps the film tense and taut; and although parts could have used some judicious editing, it’s a thoughtful and quite necessary entry into many of the debates the next generation will inherit and perhaps be more successful in solving.