Wildlife stars Carey Mulligan as Jeanette, mother to Joe (Ed Oxenbould) and wife of Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jeanette is a complex woman with a strong instinct for survival. The film is set in the early 1960’s and the family at the heart of this story has just moved to Montana as Jerry searches for regular work. Most recently, he’s been working at a golf course. When he loses that job over his pride, the strain on the family becomes too much.
Deep in the distance from their small town Montana home, over a ridge of mountains, there is a wildfire raging. Men are coming between the town and the fire with stories of many a man being injured severely or killed. Firefighters can make good money but they have to live to collect it. Desperate for a job, Jerry signs on to become a firefighter and Jeanette is desperately upset. You assume her hurt is concern for Jerry’s well being but there is so much more to it. The job means Jerry could be gone for weeks or months at a time.
Eventually, with money tight, Jeanette herself gets a job teaching swimming at the local YMCA. It’s there that she meets Warren Miller (Joe Camp). We, the audience, only view their relationship through the eyes of Joe and that view is course and unforgiving. One day Joe comes home from his own job, working for a local photographer, to find Mr Miller making himself at home on the couch. The tension is thick and the implications are even thicker.
Mr Miller is not what many would call a handsome man. He’s middle aged and thick in the middle but he dresses well and he has a big car. Mr Miller has what Jerry doesn’t have, financial security. Mr Miller is the owner of a local car dealership and he has a large home in a nice neighborhood. Joe’s eyes tell the story better than anything as he turns his accusing glance to his mother while giving his concern to his absent father.
Wildlife was co-written by Paul Dano with his wife Zoe Kazan, and directed by Dano in his directorial debut. My description would indicate that the story makes Jeanette the villain, alienating her husband’s affections in favor of the comforts of financial security. But, Wildlife is much stronger and more complicated than that. Jerry is not a saintly victim here, he’s crude and driven to flights of anger and alcoholism. Jeanette meanwhile is a good mother who does what she does in part for Joe and in part out of the fear and uncertainty of a world where women were only beginning to assert their independence.
The movie is based on a 1990 bestseller of the same name by Richard Ford and Dano and Kazan’s script is a bare bones adaptation. Dano has taken the text and made much of subtext by relying his actors to get across the reams of inner story that you’d find on the pages of a novel, into looks, gestures and a much tighter amount of dialogue. It’s a smart play as these four actors at the center of this story are superb at saying everything while saying very little.
Young Ed Oxenbould is the main character here and for a young actor he has some real heavy lifting here. Not many actors Oxenbould’s age would have the talent to stand toe to toe with Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal but Oxenbould does and fares exceptionally well. He’s witnessing these major dramatic shifts in his home life while himself being an at an age when he’s just coming of age and beginning to experience life.
Take the film’s most powerful moment. Jeanette wants Joe to go with her to a dinner at Mr Miller’s home. It’s the last thing Joe wants to do as he’s been desperately trying to find ways to bring his broken family back together. The dinner is terribly awkward with Jeanette drinking heavily and beginning to act out. The scene plays as if Jeanette is trying to show Joe the lengths she feels forced to go to care for the two of them, that she must make a spectacle of herself over Mr Miller to assure his continued kindness.
Joe’s reaction is desperate and sad and drives a wedge between mother and son that may or may not be repairable. It’s a masterfully played scene brimming with conflicting emotions. Mulligan’s desperate attempts to appear at ease and in the moment are heart rending but it’s Oxenbould’s reaction, his inability or unwillingness to understand his mother’s perspective that gives the scene a gut punching power.
Wildlife is exceptionally acted and well directed. For a debut feature, it is no surprise that Paul Dano is an actor at heart. He gives his actors room to breathe and live within their characters. He’s terrific at letting a scene build in tension and allowing it to play out in a fashion that is dramatic and yet authentic. I’m excited to see what the actor turned director does next. If Wildlife is an indication, we can expect something incredible.
The Death of Stalin is the latest work from the genius of Armando Iannucci. The man who brought us the brilliant absurdity of HBO’s Veep has crafted a truly daft history of Russian leadership in the wake of the passing of legendary monster Josef Stalin in 1953. The Machiavellian machinations of Stalin’s cabinet, including future Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev have both an authenticity and an absurdity that only a master of form and tone such as Iannucci can deliver.
The Death of Stalin features a cast stuffed with some of the most talented English actors in the world. First there is Adrian McLoughlin as Josef Stalin in his final days. McLoughlan isn’t around long, as the title would indicate, but his Stalin is nevertheless a figure of benign menace, signing off on hundreds of deaths a day of dissidents and potential dissidents while forcing his cabinet members to jockey for position in his favor.
Most prominently, there is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) who is in deep competition with Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) for Stalin’s affections. Both of them are somehow behind the sniveling Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) in the leadership line, though each assumes they can take control of Georgi as needed to get their way. Also weighing in is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) whose support both Beria and Khrushchev covet.
The casting is impeccable and extends to the brilliant Jason Isaacs as the head of the military, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s drunken, moronic son, Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as a dissident pianist who plays a key role in the plotting between Khrushchev and Beria. Her role isn’t large but Kurylenko invests it with passion. She along with Andrea Riseborough, playing Stalin's daughter, are the only women in the movie and both are inspired choices for their roles.
The trick of The Death of Stalin is the tricky tone of the script which feels at once authentic and absurd. The key is finding the absurd within the authentic and Iannucci does that brilliantly, especially with an opening gag involving another brilliant character actor, Paddy Considine. As the film opens, Comrade Stalin is listening to a live performance on Moscow radio of a live band. Stalin decides he wants a recording of the performance but the performance had not been recorded.
Immediately we sense how dangerous this moment is for Considine. It’s all in structure. We’ve seen Stalin’s death lists being signed and death squads being spread across the city. Considine’s producer has been told without it being said that if he can’t reproduce the broadcast he will be killed. So, he kidnaps what’s left of the audience and the band and sets about having the concert performed again under the threat of death for everyone from the band to the ignorant citizens Considine wrangles off the streets to fill in for missing audience members.
It’s a masterfully dark gag and one that sets the darkly humorous tone for what is to come in The Death of Stalin. Iannucci appears to take many parts of this story quite seriously and allows the absurdity to arise from the bizarrely dire circumstances. Take Palin’s Molotov, a brilliantly doddering character, Molotov praised Stalin for seeming to have murdered his wife only t have her returned to him alive by Beria who has kept her under wraps just in case he needed her to bargain.
The scene where she is returned is a Noises Off style gag wherein Khrushchev arrives at his home to scheme against Beria only to have Beria show up and just as Molotov is talking about how his wife deserved to die for criticizing Stalin, she is brought in the door and he welcomes her home, only to then make a running gag about how she deserved the fate that Stalin had assigned her even as he’s happy she’s home.
My description doesn’t do justice to Pailin’s brilliantly absurd performance. He along with Buscemi are truly stand outs in this ridiculously talented ensemble. The two of them appear to have been ready built for Iannucci’s ingeniously dark and hysterical style of storytelling. Buscemi is particularly adept a switching from comedy to seriousness at the drop of a hat and without losing the complex rhythm of the story.
The Death of Stalin is now available to stream on Amazon.
As a Karen Gillan super-fan ever since her days as Amy Pond on Doctor Who, I had been anticipating her writing and directing debut, The Party is Just Beginning ever since she announced the project on her instagram. Gillan has been consistently great at picking material, even her short lived sitcom, Selfie, was criminally underrated. She even picks great blockbusters with a co-starring role in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. Needless to say, I was fascinated to see what she would do with material of her own.
The Party is Just Beginning stars Gillan as Liusaidh, an unapologetic party girl who enjoys random, anonymous sex and a whole lot of drinking. In other movies the story would be about reforming her, helping her to find a boyfriend, husband or a male savior but that is not what this movie is about. Liusaidh has some deep emotional wounds but she’s not looking for a savior, she just needs a friend.
Liusaidh’s deepest hurt came from her best friend, Allistair (Matthew Beard). Liusaidh watched as he went into a dead end relationship with a closeted missionary and watched further as Alistair's father died and he kept pushing away her attempts at comfort. The film features seamless flashbacks that you’re aware are flashbacks but don’t feel forced. The flashbacks are layered into the story and it’s clear that the present we are in with Liusaidh, Alistair is not present.
Death is omnipresent in Liusaidh’s life as her family is plagued by mistaken calls from people attempting to call a suicide hotline. One day Liusaidh decides to engage with one of the callers and they become friends. The caller is an elderly man whose wife died some time ago and he feels that he is now a burden to his children. The caller fears that his children are going to put him into a home so he has considered taking his life.
Scenes of Liusaidh talking with the caller are broken up by her random drunken, hook ups. These include a nameless man, eventually named Dale (Lee Pace), who she comes to see more than once. Dale is just as troubled as everyone else around Liusaidh. I won’t go into that however, I recommend you see that for yourself. It’s not a spoiler or anything, I don’t think I could spoil The Party is Just Beginning, it’s a mood piece more than a traditional narrative.
Karen Gillan’s direction of The Party is Just Beginning is exceptionally strong. For a first time out, she has a good hand on the basics and some innovation in the way she seamlessly brings the past and present together in the story. She certainly didn’t give herself an easy task with the script which is uncompromisingly experimental in how it weaves the past and present and doesn’t have anything approaching a traditional narrative.
The film doesn’t have any major dramatics, there are no revelations and Liusaidh as a character isn’t evolving in a classic arc. As I mentioned earlier, The Party is Just Beginning is a mood piece. The film isn’t about anything traditional, it’s about observing this prickly, depressed and unusual character. You are either up for something unusual or the movie is not for you. I was up for every moment of The Party is Just Beginning.
I’m a sucker for a good mood piece and I found the depressive, slate gray mood of The Party is Just Beginning remarkably engaging. I fought with the movie, my mind tried to cram it into something I recognized until about half way through when I began to settle into what the movie is, an observation of a character we don’t often see in modern film culture. Liusaidh is singularly human, unique and genuine. She feels real, like someone you have seen somewhere in your life.
The slice of life here may not be to everyone’s palette. The film owns its depressive air and moody atmosphere. Gillan offers no comforts such as sitcom laugh lines or explosive moments of drama. Scenes you think might erupt simply don’t because such recognizable bits of drama would ruin the remarkably curated mood of The Party is Just Beginning. I feel I am not making the film sound appealing but trust me when I tell you, Gillan holds the screen and, if you’re like me, you will be riveted by her work. That’s the appeal here, observing the artful direction and complex performance.
I had been waiting for some time for this movie to arrive. I had assumed it would be on blu ray and DVD soon and I had been watching for it. What a terrific surprise it was to find the film streaming on Amazon. It’s a little pricier than a DVD rental but it was worth it. The Party is Just Beginning is a terrific film. The film is a terrific announcement that Karen Gillan is not merely an appealing actress, she is a true artist and budding auteur. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Stan & Ollie is a late addition to my best of the year list. This wonderful film chronicling the final tour of the legendary comedy duo Laurel & Hardy is funny and poignant without ever becoming cloying or pushy. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly beautifully capture the history and the strain between the two great friends and partners as they attempt to salvage one last bit of glory before the spotlight fades for good.
In 1954, having not made a movie together in 15 years, Laurel & Hardy reunited for a tour of England in hopes of getting a movie project off the ground with an English producer. Things don’t get off to an auspicious start as their tour manager, Delfont (Rufus Jones) books them a run down hotel and a small theater that they are unable to sell out. Worse yet, the producer of their proposed film project won’t take Stan’s calls.
It even looks as if the tour will be cut short as ticket sales lag. Meanwhile, we cut to the back story of what let led to their break up 15 years earlier. Danny Huston portrays legendary producer Hal Roach, the man who put the duo together and brought them to the big screen. While Ollie is content with their arrangement, Stan, who once partnered with Charlie Chaplin before his days in the movies, wants to make more money.
With Stan’s contract up, he’s managed to book a deal with Fox but only for Laurel & Hardy, not just for himself. The deal fell through when Ollie decided to remain with Hal Roach and even made a movie, Zenobia, without his long time partner. Zenobia wasn’t a hit and for more than a decade both men’s careers foundered. We don’t know what brought them back together but a payday in England appears to have been the reason.
Even still, the two have a tremendous stage act that we get glimpses of and those glimpses are hysterically funny. As the story progresses, the two begin to do press for the tour and eventually the tour begins to gain ground and sell out shows. Naturally, old tensions eventually come back to light and the tour is thrown into chaos when it appears that Hardy’s health won’t allow him to continue.
Stan & Ollie was directed by Jon S Baird whose previous film, Filth starring James McAvoy, is quite a departure from the gentle and sweet poignance of Stan & Ollie. Nevertheless, Baird does a tremendous job keeping a good pace and with cinematographer Laurie Rose, he’s crafted not just a funny movie, but quite a beautiful movie. Credit also goes to prosthetics makeup designer Mark Coulier for turning the lanky Mr Reilly seamlessly into the corpulent Mr Hardy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also praise screenwriter Jeff Pope who worked from the book Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours by A.J Marriott. The dialogue though mostly inferred feels real and dynamic and authentic. The lovely recreations of the Laurel & Hardy performances are wonderful but it is the private moments that resonate deeply, especially a near break up scene that plays as comedy for those who can’t hear the deeply hurtful things the two say to one another.
And then, of course, there are the two incredible performances at the center of the film. John C Reilly has earned both a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award nomination for his performance as Oliver Hardy and both are much deserved. Reilly, even under pounds of prosthetics finds the heart of Oliver Hardy in lovely fashion. He appears to have been a lovely man and while the film likely shaves the edges off of all of these characters, this is a lovely way to remember these men.
Steve Coogan in many ways has the much harder performance. Stan Laurel played the fool in many of the Laurel & Hardy movies, bumbling his friend into one silly bit of nonsense after the other, but behind the scenes, Laurel was a force to be reckoned with. Laurel wrote much of the duos routines for stage and screen and was even deferred to by many directors for how to film those routines, though he never earned a directors credit.
Coogan movingly captures the pain and frustration that made Stan Laurel so driven and yet so kind. He wasn’t wrong to want to get the duo more money, they were rather underpaid given their success, and it is a fine tribute to the man that he never stopped fighting for the recognition that he felt they both deserved, but especially for the endless hours of work he put in to make them so successful.
Stan & Ollie is a wonderful movie, a true crowd pleaser. It’s a movie that fans and friends and family of the legendary duo can be proud of. Yes, they had their petty differences and egotism but at the heart, they were showmen and dedicated friends. Stan & Ollie is the kind of tribute these two men deserve after so many years of being under-recognized behind contemporaries such The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the copycats who came after such as Abbott & Costello and, to a lesser extent, Marin & Lewis.
I’m not going to lie, I was dreading the idea of Holmes and Watson. I have an individual appreciation of John C Reilly and Will Ferrell but the two of them together, for me, bring out the worst in each other. Step Brothers and Talladega Nights are a pair of deeply unfunny, shrill, gag fests that amount to little more than a pair of very talented comic actors screaming nonsense at each other when they aren’t violently assaulting each other or some poor supporting player.
Holmes and Watson only served to underline why I dislike Ferrell and Reilly together. Once again the duo shouts at one another and then they violently attack each other. This film throws in a terrible parody of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson alongside achingly tone deaf references to modern America politics. But, perhaps the biggest crime of Holmes and Watson is taking the brilliant actress Rebecca Hall and robbing her of her talent with a character so far beneath her she can’t help but trip.
Holmes and Watson stars Will Ferrell as the arrogant, genius detective Sherlock Holmes and Reilly as his Dr Watson. Watson has been Holmes devoted friend and sidekick since their days in school when Holmes swore off emotion in favor of the purity of logic. Together they solve London’s biggest crimes and on this day, Holmes is set to confront his nemesis, Professor Moriarty in court and send him to the gallows, but only if Holmes can first choose just the right hat.
Turns out, the man on trial isn’t Moriarty but a walking punchline for a series of abysmally unfunny masturbation jokes. The real Moriarty, according to Holmes, has fled to America. Having deduced Moriarty’s attempt to make everyone think him dead, Holmes and Watson are invited to meet the Queen but this is also a ruse. The meeting is actually Holmes’ surprise birthday party, which he deduces, just before the yelp of surprise.
Inside Holmes’ birthday cake is a corpse with a message and a brand new mystery is… on the move. Ferrell pretending toward Holmes’ trademark phrases is one of several dozen unfunny running gags in Holmes and Watson. As part of the investigation of the new mystery, Holmes and Watson are joined by an American doctor, Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her wacky sidekick Millie (Lauren Lapkus, delivering the only funny performance in the movie).
A better movie would give Hall a character to play but instead, she’s only on hand to play Watson’s love interest and the subject of Holmes’ first brush with anxiety as he worries about losing his friend to a woman. Holmes is also dealing with his first ever sexual attraction. He finds himself besotted by Millie who shares his bizarre affinity for eating onions as if they are apples, one of the rare jokes that even the brilliant Lauren Lapkus can’t make funny.
Holmes and Watson was written and directed by Etan Cohen whose best work was the slam dunk Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder. Cohen has worked with Ferrell before, he scripted Ferrell’s unfunny rich guy goes to prison ‘comedy’ Get Hard. Cohen’s approach appears to be a chaotic mix of improv and the most simplistic of plotting. It’s not hard to determine where Ferrell and Reilly appear to be riffing to find jokes in Holmes and Watson and that likely explains how deathly much of the film’s apparent improv is.
The bit I mentioned earlier about hats goes on for several endless minutes and leads immediatly into an over-extended physical gags about mosquitos, a deadly virus and killer bees. That sequence, the hats and the physical comedy, is all going on amidst another bit about Holmes perhaps being so late to the fake Moriarty’s court hearing that he may let the man loose by not showing up. The punchline is supposed to be that the man is an imposter and thus should be set loose anyway but the clumsiness of this sequence, along with the series of masturbation riffs in the scene, stomps all over that punchline.
Stomping jokes into the ground is the one thing that Holmes and Watson does well. Ferrell and Reilly pound every joke in the movie into the ground with their very physical style of humor. A joke can’t be allowed to land without either shouting or some overstuffed, unnecessary bit of physical business. Don’t even ask me about the musical sequence in Homes and Watson, the homoerotic undertones are a black hole of juvenilia.
Holmes and Watson is among the worst movies of 2018. Aside from a couple moments from Lauren Lapkus late in the movie, there are zero laughs to be had from this supposed comedy. The film has no rhythm, it has no pace, it has no style. It’s a series of gags clattering into one another at a pace at which the joke cannot be discerned. It’s like watching Michael Bay try to direct comedy, everything is childish chaos edited inside of a blender.
Bird Box stars Sandra Bullock as Mallory, a pregnant artist whose sister is killed when an apocalyptic event begins to cause people to take their own lives. Mallory is rescued by Tom (Trevante Rhodes) who helps her get into a nearby suburban home where people are have begun to fortify. Douglas (John Malkovich) is opposed to Mallory coming in the house but the owner, played by B.D Wong, welcomes her.
Also in the home is an older woman played by Academy Award nominee Jackie Weaver, a trainee cop played by Rosa Salazar, a drug dealer played by rapper Machine Gun Kelly and a grocery store clerk played by Get Out standout, Lil Rel Howery. It’s Lil Rel who theorizes that an end of the world scenario has begun. He appears to have plenty of evidence to back up his claim but we will soon realize that why is not particularly important.
Meanwhile, the film jumps 5 years in the future. Mallary is now alone with two young children whom she calls, simply, Girl and Boy. Her refusal to name them is part of a character trait she’s built from the beginning of the story with her own pregnancy which she apparently was never particularly excited about. She was worried when she was pregnant that she could not bond with her child and the unpredictable nature of the apocalypse has only deepened her conviction about keeping a child at a distance.
That distance is important as Mallary must risk the children’s lives by taking them on a perilous journey down an empty river while blindfolded. In the past, our heroes eventually suss out that if you keep your eyes covered and you don’t see the evil that is causing people to take their lives, you can get around these demonic monsters. The only people seemingly immune to the evil are the mentally deranged who will provide a secondary villain as the movie progresses.
Bird Box was directed by Danish filmmaker Susannah Bier from a screenplay by Arrival Academy Award nominee, Eric Heisserer. The film is far from perfect but the tension and the minor touches of humorous jump scares are wildly entertaining. Malkovich is on fire in this movie as the ultimate jerk who just happens to be right all the time while Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes makes for a terrifically hunky leading man for Bullock.
You may have heard all about Bird Box from the memes alone. Netflix has hit a social media goldmine with this sight deprived thriller giving audiences a seemingly endless number of quips and screen grabs of jump scares and hot takes. A scene where a characters eyes are forcibly held open so that she can die at the hands of whatever demon is at play has gone viral with numerous punchlines while Bullock’s fearsome mother figure has been raised up as the ultimate example of tough motherhood because she does everything while blindfolded. Take that deadbeat dads.
Honestly, I don’t know if I love Bird Box or the viral version of Bird Box that has become legend on Twitter. There are blockbuster comic book movies whose supporting characters don’t get shouted out by name on social media yet you can’t help but see twitter users referring to Gary or Olympia or Douglas. The film is a terrifically fun thriller but the film’s other life as a seemingly endless meme generator is even more fun.
Bird Box has many issues, not the least of which is never giving the evil a face or a motivation. The lack of a singular focus for the evil nearly renders the whole of Bird Box as silly as it at M Night Shyamalan’s ‘the tree’s did it’ thriller, The Happening. Bird Box even cribs that films use of the wind as a harbinger of doom plot device. Thankfully, the performances from Bullock, Rhodes and Malkovich never let Bird Box tip completely into parody.
Director Susannah Bier is certainly not doing anything particularly original here, especially in the wake of the far more skillful and terrifying, A Quiet Place having come out in just the last 10 months. But, Bird Box has enough of its own charms and modest scares to stand on its own as a genuinely entertaining popcorn thriller. The memes probably helped more than the film itself to make me recommend Bird Box, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit how thoroughly entertained I was by Bird Box.
Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie. Mostly because it is set on Christmas but it is not about Christmas. If I’m being honest, Christmas isn’t a favorite holiday of mine. I don’t care for most Christmas movies including supposed classics such as A Christmas Story and the loathsome, grotesque, and lowbrow National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Die Hard is a Christmas movie for people like me, those who don’t enjoy Christmas movies.
On Christmas Day, John McClain has arrived in Los Angeles in hopes of reuniting with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Things get off to a bad start when John arrives at Holly’s office and finds that now living in Los Angeles, she’s dropped the last name McClane, in favor of her maiden name Gennero. The two begin to argue but they never finish the argument, first after her boss calls and then when terrorists arrive and begin taking over the building, known as Nakatomi Plaza.
John is changing clothes when he hears gunshots. He quickly intuits the situation using his instincts, he’s a New York Police Detective whose job has been a significant strain on his personal life. John quickly assesses the situation and after escaping to an upper, unfinished floor of the building, he attempts to contact the police. Unfortunately the cops don’t believe him when he calls and only dispatch one cop to the scene.
Sgt Al Powell (Reginald Vel Johnson) was thinking it would be a quiet night of enjoying twinkies in his cruiser but when he arrive at Nakatomi Plaza the shooting starts and his quiet night turns into a major hostage situation and the only things keeping a bloodbath at bay are Al and his new friend who won’t give his name. The two veteran cops bond quickly and even more when other less capable cops arrive on the scene and begin to screw things up.
The terrorists are headed up by the nefariously ingenious Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Making it appear as if they have taken hostages, Hans has the cops running around in circles while his real plan unfolds. Only John McClane stands between Hans and his ultimate goal, a whole boatload of money. Hans’ ruse is brilliant and Rickman’s supremely intelligent and superior performance gives the whole film gravity.
In many ways, Willis and RIckman were perfectly matched as hero and villain. Where John is instinctive and primal, Hans is calculating and manipulative. Hans is a buttoned up, professional criminal, used to telling others to do the dirty work, McClane is a blue collar cop who acts on hunches and well worn experience. John’s unpredictable nature isn’t merely a character trait, it becomes a strategy and Willis is remarkable in deploying it.
Willis brings an authenticity to John McClane that matches his star power and charisma and makes John McClane an indelible hero. The film has an old school western feel in terms of the battle of good and evil. John may not be the picture of white hat virtue, but rather, he’s a more down to Earth and believable kind of good. Hans meanwhile, has an alluring evil, though you’re never on his side, you wouldn’t feel too bad if he fooled you.
Rickman’s arrogant superiority is his most nefarious quality. Even more than his murderous plot, his stuffy, accented, suited persona is a relatable sort of evil. He’s not the picture of either a terrorist or a killer, yet he feels more real than many actual, real world villains because Rickman is so incredible at playing him. His arrogance and his suit are reminiscent of the kind of Wall Street villains that Oliver Stone had recently introduced us to. He’s just more honest than them because he robs and murders people in front of you and not from behind a desk.
The blue collar qualities of Al and John make them our automatic allies. More of us relate to John and Al than any of the stuffy, suited types in Nakatomi Plaza. It’s part of their charm and a big part of the performances of Willis and VelJohnson. John and Al seem like people we know, people we could have a beer with. The divide between them and the suit wearing villains are signifiers that director John McTiernan clever uses to create a subliminal divide underneath the the obvious criminal and not a criminal divide.
The action in Die Hard is top notch. Director McTiernan stacks the odds against John McClane brilliantly. The stakes rise in each passing scene with John and Holly’s identity as husband and wife acting in many ways like a bomb about to explode the story at any moment. The name game with Holly is also a terrific piece of screenwriting as the argument over the name tells us everything we need to know about the strain between John and Holly.
Many screenwriters need a page and a half of dialogue to tell us what the names Gennaro and McClane and the hurt in John’s voice and manner do in a single scene. Die Hard is rarely thought of as being a great screenplay but Jeb Stuart and co-writer Steven E de Souza deserve nearly as much credit as director John McTiernan. The economy of character building in John, Holly, Hans and Al is really remarkable. We learn more about them from their actions than we would from endless pages of expository dialogue.
Die Hard is Christmas for me because I watch it every Christmas. It’s the kind of smart, well-worn action movie that is perfect holiday comfort food. The familiarity, the easy good versus evil story, the action that even after 30 years feels refreshingly new and ever exciting. Die Hard is the gift that keeps on giving. 30 years of thrills, 30 years of pithy hero banter, and 30 years of watching Hans Gruber falling to his death. Merry Christmas indeed.
On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones in the life story of sitting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We join the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she became one of the first classes at Harvard to allow women, all the way back in 1954. Mrs Ginsburg was already married to her beloved husband, Martin (Armie Hammer) and was eager to start a family all while navigating the sexist and incredibly demanding schedule of a Harvard Law student.
As if her life weren’t difficult enough, in short order, Ruth becomes a mother and her husband develops testicular cancer and cannot attend his own Harvard law classes. So, Ruth attends and takes notes in Martin’s classes, attends her own, writes papers for herself while taking dictation from Martin for his coursework and while the two are raising their baby daughter. To say this woman was driven and brilliant is quite the understatement.
When Martin graduates and accepts a position at a high powered New York City law firm, Ruth completes her Harvard coursework while also attending classes at Columbia to be close to her husband. She then struggles to find a law firm that will hire her despite graduating at the top of her class. Ruth ends up accepting a teaching position at Rutgers where she finds herself at the center of a cultural revolution as her students are taking to the streets to demand social change.
Inspired in part by her students and by her daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), Ruth finds a lawsuit that challenges the status quo in a way that will reverberate through the years in the battle against sexism. A Colorado man was denied a caregivers tax break because only women were allowed to be caretakers to family members who were incapacitated by illness. If Ruth can prove that the tax law is discriminatory against a man, it could create a precedent that could knock down dozens of laws that give different rights to men than to women.
On the Basis of Sex was directed by Mimi Leder, a solid pro director who brings a strong polish to this otherwise very straightforward biopic. There is certainly a remarkable amount of hero worshipping going on but it’s not entirely unearned. As played by Felicity Jones, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is some kind of real-life superhero, a rebuke to anyone who says you can’t have it all. Top of her class, married, two kids, and one of the most notable legal careers of modern American history. Indeed, that is heroic.
If I have any issues with On the Basis of Sex, it’s with the compressed timeline of the film. At times, because of the editing and the odd transitions, it can be difficult to track where we are in time. The film employs time jumps to get to the juicier parts of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life but in that, we have a moment where she goes from having one child to suddenly having a toddler son in such an abrupt fashion that you might miss a scene just catching up to where we are in time.
On the Basis of Sex is just a tad sloppy here in there from a structural standpoint but that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s one of those things that separates a good movie from a great movie. On the Basis of Sex is quite a good movie in my estimation but it’s not great. Leder’s approach to the life of Ginsburg is just a little too antiseptic. I am not asking for there to be dirt or grit, but some will find the level of hero worship approaching hagiography.
On the Basis of Sex is the second movie of 2018 dedicated to the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The other is a more necessary and comprehensive documentary called RBG. That film does render On the Basis of Sex a tad redundant. While On the Basis of Sex is kept to a specific portion of Ginsburg’s life and that gives it at least a different focus, RBG’s comprehensiveness makes it the far more essential portrait.
On the Basis of Sex is a sturdy and involving drama, a little loose in the editing but certainly not a bad movie. The lead performance from Felicity Jones is energetic, intelligent and engaging and the supporting cast is solid, with Armie Hammer as the standout as Martin Ginsburg, an unsung hero who supported his wife every step of her journey, even as every other man in her life created new barriers to her success.
If you had to choose one movie on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG is far more essential but On the Basis of Sex is strong enough that I can recommend it.
Mary Queen of Scots is a handsome but mostly forgettable mid-centuries soap opera starring two of our finest working actresses. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are incredible performers but there isn’t anything in Mary Queen of Scots that rises to the level of their talents. The film is not bad because Ronan and Robbie are too good for it to be bad but the story is far too thin and boils down far too simply given the amount of juice this story appears to have on the surface.
Mary Stuart is a fascinating historical figure. At a very young age, though she was heir to throne of Scotland, she was forced to flee to France. While there, she married the French King but did not become Queen by marriage, she was 5 at the time she was promised to the 4 year old future King. When the King died young, Mary fled back to Scotland where she was welcomed back as Queen by her brother, the Earl of Moray.
Mary’s return was not welcomed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Ever suspicious, the Queen of England kept a distance from Mary that was as strategic as it was out of fear. The Elizabeth of Mary Queen of Scots appears concerned that Mary’s beauty eclipses her own and that any invitation for comparison between the two could lead to a confrontation over her legitimacy as Queen.
The flames between Mary and Queen Elizabeth were further heated by the growing tension between the Protestants and Catholics. Mary, being a proud Catholic and Elizabeth, a Protestant, each had factions to serve and keep at bay from religious leaders and members of their respective courts. The two maintained correspondence with Elizabeth acknowledging Mary’s desire to ascend to the throne if Elizabeth died but the succession discussion was as political as it was about whom God ordained as royalty.
Eventually, the two would come into more direct conflict when Mary rejected Elizabeth’s suggestion that she marry the Protestant Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, ineffectually portrayed by Joe Alwyn. Mary took things a step further by marrying Catholic and English subject, Lord Darnley, her cousin. That Mary proceeded with the marriage to a family member and English subject without the Queen’s permission was a significant slight.
Eventually, it would be the Protestant and Catholic factions that would be Mary’s undoing but not before we get a baby and a pair of murders and a rape and finally a beheading. There is a whole lot of drama packed into Mary Queen of Scots but it doesn’t land because though Mary and Elizabeth are deeply compelling, the men surrounding them wither in comparison. Schemers, toadies, and sycophants, the men of Mary Queen of Scots do little to deepen the drama of Mary Queen of Scots.
The script repeats the same beats in Mary’s life over and over again. She rises to power, she is challenged by a man and defeats him. She rises again, is challenged by a man and out maneuvers him until finally, her luck runs out. The timeline is confusing as well as we jump ahead months and sometimes years at a time with only a few minor visual cues to indicate such a change.
As I mentioned, the production of Mary Queen of Scots is handsome. The costumes look authentic and lavish, the hair and makeup are gorgeous even as they push the bounds of believability for the period, and the sets have a lived in and worn down quality that suits the period. I have no issues with the presentation of Mary Queen of Scots, I just wish the story had been as involving as the set dressing.
As it is, Mary Queen of Scots is something of a pot boiler but a trifle of one. The film pretends toward seedy exposes and serious costume drama and never settles on which tone it prefers. A love scene between Mary and Lord Darnley prior to their marriage is intended as a moment of sexy excess but comes across as needless and awkward in executions. Rarely is the sex in Mary Queen of Scots anything necessary or titillating, it’s either uncomfortable, criminal or merely problematic.
So if the film isn’t sexy and it isn’t serious enough to rise to the level of the great costume dramas of the past, then just what is Mary Queen of Scots. At its very least, it is a fine showcase for Ronan and Robbie who bite down on their roles with gusto. If the script were better, the male characters more well-rounded as either foes or allies, and if the film’s shifting in time narrative were cleaner and clearer, perhaps Mary Queen of Scots would work. As it is, it’s messy and narratively unsatisfying despite the stars.
Welcome to Marwen is a cringe-inducing drama about a man who suffered a terrible, tragic beating and reclaims his identity through art. There is a good movie to be made of this concept, but this isn’t it. Perhaps the documentary made about this story, called Marwencol, is that movie. I haven’t seen that doc unfortunately, and so I can only judge this story based on this movie and ugh, it’s not an easy sit.
Not long prior to when this story is set, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), was brutally attacked outside of a bar in his small New York town. He was left in a coma and the subsequent traumas included losing his memory of anything that happened prior to the attack and losing the ability to draw, a long time passion. As we meet Mark he is indulging his fantasy world, known as Marwen, wherein he is a heroic World War 2 pilot who is rescued from the Nazis by a group of gun toting women who are mythic representations of the real women in Mark’s life.
Marwen is Mark’s at home art installation where he uses 12 inch dolls to represent himself and the women in his life. There is Roberta (Merritt Wever), a kindly hobby shop owner who helps Mark obtain his dolls and supplies, Julie (Janelle Monae), Mark’s former physical therapist, Carlalla (Eiza Gonzalez), a co-worker of Mark’s at a local bar, and Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Mark’s visiting nurse. There are also two other fantasy characters in Marwen but we will get to them as they are both troublesome.
There will soon be a new character in Marwen. Mark has just gotten a new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), who Mark is immediately smitten with. After seeing her and briefly meeting her and finding her very kind and patient, he goes to the hobby shop and buys a doll on which he projects her image. He even names the doll Nicol and begins to position her romantically with his doll avatar Hoagie. Here’s where the cringing begins and does not let up in Welcome to Marwen.
Welcome to Marwen is quite loosely based on the life story of the real Mark Hogancamp, a life that has already been rendered in a well-reviewed documentary. Much of the other details are inventions of Zemeckis and writer Caroline Thompson who might have been better advised to stick closer to the real story. The invented romantic aspirations of Mark are creepy and cringy and render him difficult to take.
The real Mark Hogancamp never had a Nicol, he named his characters and his town after his ex-wife, who was long out the picture before he was attacked and a good friend whom he had no romantic designs on. The real Mark Hogancamp, on some level, understands that he’s not in a place where romance is right for him. As portrayed in this movie, Mark is a true weirdo whose fixation on Nicol has the earmarks of creepy stalker behavior, something I am sure was not intended in this supposedly uplifting story.
I will put it to you dear reader, a strange man you’ve only just met begins to fixate on you, purchases a doll that he makes to look like you, begins to have that doll in a romance with a doll that looks like him. I haven’t mentioned that he also has a few pairs of her shoes that he likes to wear, mostly because that is arguably the least creepy thing happening here. Again, the movie doesn’t intend any of this to be creepy but the way it is crafted on screen makes it unintentionally, off-puttingly, creepy.
The movie doesn’t do much of anything to make Mark likable. Other than casting the innately likable Steve Carell, the film portrays Mark is awkward, humorless, childlike, a poor dresser, prone to violent attacks of fantasy, and a hermit. The women in his life indulge all of these qualities and reinforce them to a degree that goes beyond kindness and into the realm of fantasy where most of them only exist. The female characters in Welcome to Marwen are mostly the invention of the filmmakers and are not part of the real story as portrayed in the documentary, or so I have been told.
Speaking of fantasy characters, there is another controversial inclusion in Welcome to Marwen. Diane Kruger voices a character named Deja who is the one character in the film universe that is not based on any of the other characters in the movie. Mark describes Deja as the Belgian Witch of Marwen, a woman so deeply in love with Hoagie that she makes his other potential love interests vanish.
Deja is a supremely clumsy metaphor for addiction. She wears a bright blue glove that is the same color as the pain medication that Mark has been abusing. It’s hinted that Mark’s drinking problem, another addiction, was what drove away the wife he can only recall from photographic evidence and the fact that Mark was drunk the night he got beat up is part of his notion that he may have deserved the beating he received. By vanquishing Deja, Mark is symbolically vanquishing his addiction. If only life were so simple as defeating a doll. .
I debated whether to include a discussion of the other character in Marwen but I will mention it. In yet another creepy and tone deaf detail, Zemeckis includes a scene of Mark indulging in his pastime of watching his favorite porno actress, Suzette, who is portrayed by Zemeckis’ wife Leslie (Eww!).
Mark likes Suzette so much that he made her a doll character in Marwen and when Nicol asks about her, Mark is not hesitant about explaining her origin in yet another cringy bit of tin-eared dialogue.
It’s a shame all of this goes down this way because some of Welcome to Marwen isn’t completely terrible. The film uses some wonderful technical wizardry to bring Mark’s art to life. Mark doesn’t just play with these dolls, he poses them and takes photos of them that are genuine works of art. The film even builds to Mark’s art exhibit. As we watch Mark work his art is alive and moving around and having dialogue and it’s all rather inventive looking.
This could be a device that deepens the story and creates an artful insight into Mark’s troubled, damaged, mind but as played by all involved in Welcome to Marwen, the dolls are yet another clumsy metaphorical device. They are there to deliver exposition and give simple metaphoric representations of Mark’s mental state. It doesn’t help that Zemeckis uses the dolls to deliver yet another creepy punchline regarding Mark; he occasionally poses his female dolls topless. Baring in mind that these are dolls based on people in his life, it plays as a creepy and entirely unnecessary detail that the filmmakers seem to think is charming and funny.
From what I understand about the documentary, none of what Zemeckis puts into the movie is true of the real Mark Hogancamp. He might be a creepy pervert but from what I have read about the documentary, it appears more interested in him as an oddball character and a talented artist. The romantic plot that Zemeckis forces into the movie is a completely misguided nod to mainstream filmmaking that requires that all quirky male protagonists have a love interest, even if the character has no qualities that would attract said love interest.
To be fair, the Nicol character as played by Leslie Mann never realizes she’s a love interest until a truly hard to watch scene in which she has to let him down easy. It’s a supremely hard to watch and misguided scene that had me squirming in my seat. Mark is a character that is hard enough to take without the movie so forcefully trying to be sympathetic to his misguided ideas of romance. It’s meant to be an insight into his struggle but it all just comes off as forcefully sad.
Welcome to Marwen is a technical marvel in some ways but mostly, it’s just hard to watch. The characters are all offbeat caricatures, the dialogue is full of the kind of lazy exposition you expect from action movies not from character driven drama and while the technical wizardry is neat, it can’t make up for the many other deficiencies in the story and characters of Welcome to Marwen.
Michael Bay did Transformers fans the best possible favor he could do for them by not directing Bumblebee. Bay, who has directed each of the Transformers movies thus far and delivered some of the ugliest and most unwatchably bad blockbusters of recent memory, stepped aside in favor of director Travis Knight in a move that has single handedly turned this franchise around. Bumblebee is terrific and is the first indication we’ve had that the Transformers could work as a big screen blockbuster.
(FYI, I don’t care how much money the Transformers movies made, they are all terrible and I hate them, a lot.)
Bumblebee stars Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie, a teenager dealing with the loss of her father and a strained relationship with her mother, Pamela Adlon, who has remarried. Charlie’s love of cars came from her dad and when she fails to fix up a car she and her dad had been working on, she sets her sight upon a broken VW bug at a local junkyard. What she doesn’t know is that her new car is actually the alien robot, Bee-127, a warrior sent to guard the Earth against the evil Decepticons.
In a prologue, we meet Bee-127 in the midst of a war on his home planet of Cybertron. When the battle appears lost, Bee-127 is sent to Earth to establish a safe landing zone for his fellow Autobots and to keep Earth safe from the Decepticons. Arriving on Earth, Bee is immediately thrust into trouble with members of the military, led by Agent Burns (John Cena). Bee landed in the midst of Burns’ war games in a California forest and is immediately pursued by the military.
Unfortunately, Bee is also pursued by one of the Decepticons leading to a destructive battle. Bee is eventually left immobilized and taking the shape of the last thing he sees before losing consciousness, an ancient Volkswagen Beetle. That brings us up to date, Bumblebee is set in the 1980’s and well before the action of the Transformers films that precede it. That distance really helps the story and creates a mystery as to Charlie’s fate that lingers throughout the movie.
One of the many significant failures of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies was the editing which shredded the robot on robot fight scenes into painfully unwatchable catastrophes. The fight scenes in each of the Transformers movies are clattering cacophonies of chaos where you can barely make out what robot is on which side and which one is hitting the other. And then you add the sound which was a punishingly loud mix of awful scoring and metal on metal screeching.
No such trouble in Bumblebee. By keeping the camera static, for the most part, and keeping the editing at a readable pace, Travis Knight delivers robot on robot fighting that we can see and enjoy as if the robots were remotely real. That’s not to say that Knight reinvented anything, he and his team just appearsto have taken more care to craft fight scenes in a fashion that is not offensive to the eyes and ears of the audience.
Then there are the wonderful characters of Bumblebee. Knight, who broke into the mainstream with the tremendous animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings, takes great pains to give us characters we believe in, sympathize with and care about. Unlike the cartoon figures of the Bay movies who shout and preen and are nearly as unendurable as the fight scenes, Knight’s characters are warm and funny, fully formed human beings with backstories and inner lives we are interested in.
Hailee Steinfeld is a wonderful young actress who infuses Charlie with a spiky puckishness that is a delight to watch. She’s not saccharine or mopey, she’s a believable teenage girl with agency and strength. You can sense her strength and character from her dialogue and her manner, her care and compassion when Bumblebee is revealed is a lovely character moment. Bay’s Transformers movies have not one single character with the kind of depth or humanity that Charlie exhibits in any one scene in Bumblebee.
The supporting cast is slightly more broad but not nearly the ugly caricatures that Mr Bay traded on. John Cena brings a forceful energy to his tweener character. Agent Burns is no paper baddie, he has depths to be unveiled. He’s a loyal dedicated and talented soldier and a believable foe for our hero and our heroes true villains, The Decepticons. Cena is also effortlessly funny and charismatic in this role. And, Mr Cena gets the film’s biggest laugh with a reference to the name ‘Decepticons.’
Bumblebee isn’t perfect, the opening few minutes on Cybertron rush by a little and have a slightly awkward vibe. But, once Steinfeld’s Charlie is introduced the film improves immeasurably. The character of Bumblebee becomes whole in interacting with Charlie. Acting like a giant alien robot puppy, Bumblebee exhibits vulnerability and strength in equal measure. Where Mr Bay reduced Bumblebee many times to a gag delivery machine, Knight makes Bumblebee a character and quite a good one.
The biggest difference in Bumblebee and the Transformers of Michael Bay is Travis Knight’s attention to detail. This attention to detail emerges in small, seemingly unimportant moments that take on meaning once you consider how those moments are lacking from the other Transformers movies. The ending is especially rich with attention to detail with a rearview mirror shot that is surprisingly emotional.
I adore Bumblebee. This movie ranks behind only Black Panther as my favorite blockbuster of the year. This movie is fun, it’s hilarious and it is exciting. Most importantly, it’s the first time I have been able to enjoy the Transformers on the big screen. I was never deeply offended, I didn’t feel like the movie was actively hateful toward the audience and, when I walked out, my eyes and ears didn’t hurt. That alone could have made me admire Bumblebee, but Travis Knight made me genuinely enjoy Bumblebee.
Slay Belles is the latest in a surprisingly long line of Christmas themed horror movies. For me, this type of faux rebelliousness, ‘aren’t we cute making the most innocent holiday into a horror movie’ nonsense wore out its welcome with the Silent Night Deadly Night franchise. Somehow though, filmmakers continue to fool themselves into cashing in on the novelty of Christmas related blood and guts. The latest failed effort at this novelty is streaming now and called Slay Belles.
Slay Belles stars Kristina Klebe as Alexi, the stick in the mud of a trio of friends who refuses to steal when they go shopping. Alexi’s friends are Dahlia (Susan Slaughter) and Sadie (Hannah Wagner), a pair of cosplay loving, minor YouTube celebrities. Dahlia and Sadie host a YouTube series they call Adventure Girls in which they travel to abandoned locations and strut around in odd costumes while preening for the camera.
This time, Dahlia and Sadie have dragged Alexi along for the show and they have a wacky new location, a former Santa’s Village that has gone out of business. What they don’t know and are about to find out, is that Santa Claus is real, here played by Barry Bostwick of Spin City and Rocky Horror Picture Show and now desperately slumming it. Santa is in the midst of a pitched battle with The Krampus, a monster that is somehow physically connected to Santa and is murdering most of a small town just before Christmas.
The girls must team up with Kris Kringle and a local forest ranger, Sean (Stephen Ford of MTV’s Teen Wolf), to battle The Krampus and stop him before he begins murdering children around the world. I will give the movie one bit of credit, The Krampus costume that they made or purchased or whatever, looks pretty great. Yes, it probably resembles more of a werewolf but, then again, what the heck is a Krampus anyway. The monster looks appropriately monster-like and that’s all that matters.
Unfortunately, the rest of Slay Belles is far less inspired. The performances are insipid, the direction is all over the place stylistically, with a camera bouncing around in every scene, and Barry Bostwick appears to be in some sort of stupor. The veteran actor limps through scene after scene with just enough energy to just avoid yawning over his own lines. Bostwick never really clicked in the mainstream on the big screen but even he seems to be above the nonsense of Slay Belles.
I referred to Slay Belles as a Christmas themed horror movie but the aim appears to be ‘horror comedy’ and not merely blood and guts scares. I add the caveat ‘appears to be’ because despite what seems like a light tone, I didn’t find a single laugh in the entire movie. I did almost give a small laugh at the expense of how tired Barry Bostwick appears to be in Slay Belles but I don’t believe that laugh was what the filmmakers were going for.
Slay Belles is rated R for Language and brief nudity. The film is streaming now on Amazon and will soon be on the shelves at what remains of video stores across the country.
Mary Poppins was my first love at the movies. I fell head over heels in love with Julie Andrews at just 7 years old. It wasn’t just Julie Andrews though, it was Dick Van Dyke, who, for a 7 year old, was the single funniest human being on the planet. His silly accent, mocked by many for years, was an absolute wonder to a child. His penguin dance in Mary Poppins was the first big laugh I can remember from my childhood, the first time I laughed so hard that I remember the moment.
With the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, now in theaters nationwide, now is perhaps the appropriate time for me to express my undying dedication to the original Mary Poppins from 1964. For years, when I was working on my snobby critic credentials, I pretended that Mary Poppins was beneath me, a trifle only for children. I pretended that I didn’t know the words to every song and that the movie didn’t make me happier than any movie ever, aside from maybe, Legally Blonde.
That, however, was the posing of an immature man-child, afraid that his macho credibility would be questioned if he admitted he loved what he loved. Now, I am an adult and I’m more secure with myself, and not worried about such nonsense. Now, I can fully express that Mary Poppins is adorable and deserves to be remembered not just as a great kids film, but as a genuine motion picture classic. It helps a little that the sequel is nearly as good as the original.
Mary Poppins (1964) stars Julie Andrews as the mischievous yet proper Governess, Mary Poppins. Mary has floated down from some magical place in the clouds to take the position as caretaker to the uproarious Banks’ children, Michael and Jane (Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice), whose nanny, played by acting legend Elsa Lanchester, has just quit. Michael and Jane aren’t troublemakers, per se, but with their fastidious father, George (David Tomlinson), always at work and their mother, Winifred (Glynis Johns), always off on her causes, they like to seek attention.
Mary Poppins appears and has just the solution for Michael and Jane’s rambunctious behavior, a series of adventures that include Mary’s good friend, and Banks’ family Chimney Sweep, Burt (Dick Van Dyke). Burt is also a one man band and a chalk artist and a kite salesman, all of which play minor roles throughout this remarkable plot. Together, our foursome sing songs and dance with animated penguins and generally have a blast, until George’s job at the bank is threatened and the family faces ruin.
It’s almost impossible to believe that this was Julie Andrews first big screen starring role, she’s a movie star from the first moment. That likely has to do with her background on Broadway and in musical theater but regardless, she is a movie star of the highest order in Mary Poppins. Her command of a scene, her effortless charisma and her spirited yet proper English singing style is infectious. Even when slightly imperious in her self-satisfaction, she remains an utter delight.
History has not been kind to the performance of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. For years, snobs of many sorts, myself included, have poked fun at Van Dyke’s ludicrous Cockney accent. Looking at it through the prism of my childhood however, that accent becomes part of Van Dyke’s charm. He sounds funny, he makes goofy faces and for a child of 6 or 7 years old, there are few things as funny as an adult acting like a big goof with a funny voice.
For me, Van Dyke’s performance recalls the laughs at all cost approach of Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. Like O’Connor, Van Dyke’s performance is a physical marvel and while Van Dyke can’t dance like O’Connor he can throw himself into a physical gag with similar caution to the wind style. Van Dyke also shares a similar goofball charm with O’Connor and it makes his performance memorably adorable in Mary Poppins.
The unsung hero of Mary Poppins however, is the brilliant David Tomlinson. George Banks is not an easy role. He has to love his family but be distant, he has to come off as a believable father who is also obsessed with work and with money. He has to border on cruel in some scenes but not so much that he can’t win us back to his side in the end. Tomlinson nails every bit of George Banks and his final scenes are some of my favorite memories of Mary Poppins with a hole in his bowler and his collar askew, finally ready to go fly a kite.
Mary Poppins was directed by Disney regular Robert Stevenson and while he is not a celebrated director, his work for Disney has endured and, in the 1960’s, he defined the Disney formula with Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks and Herbie the Lovebug. Stevenson’s light touch and adherence to the wholesome, Walt Disney ethos, really work to create something wonderful in Mary Poppins. Some might find the Disney factory approach stifling but Stevenson turned it into movie magic that has lasted to this day.
Of course, Stevenson is greatly overshadowed by Walt Disney himself, the producer of each of the films that Stevenson directed. Disney set the course for the movies made under his umbrella and Mary Poppins is perhaps his one, true, live action masterpiece. Other Disney live action features like That Darn Cat and most assuredly, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, would try to capture the same magic but they don’t rise to the level of enchantment that is Mary Poppins, a truly one of a kind work in the Disney canon.
One of a kind until now anyway, with the release of Mary Poppins Returns in theaters now.
Director Yen Tan’s 1985 left me an emotional mess. This incredibly moving drama about a gay man returning home for the holidays to his conservative, religious, Texas family hit me right me in heart with its brave storytelling and artful construction. Filmed in 16 millimeter black and white, the film gives you a feeling of a memory being recalled with great detail, directly from the year 1985.
1985 stars Corey Michael Smith, best known for his role on TV’s Gotham, as Adrian. Adrian moved away from his Texas home three years ago to live in New York City and, for the first time, to live openly as a gay man. Having never come out to his parents, expertly portrayed by Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis, Adrian decides immediately to keep himself in the closet while back home so as not to upset his family dynamic.
Adrian’s sexuality however, is not the only secret he’s decided to keep from his family. Verbal and visual cues will slowly reveal as the film goes on that Adrian has been losing weight, he’s been getting ill frequently and in a beautifully telling moment, his beloved dog clings to his side as if to protect and comfort him. It’s not hard to suss out what Adrian’s secret is though the film does gently allow the secret to be unfolded throughout the story.
1985 was directed by Yen Tan, a filmmaker who I am unfortunately not familiar with though this is his fourth feature film according to wikipedia. In notes that accompanied the movie when I saw it, Tan discussed how working with AIDS patients years ago inspired him to want to tell the story of a closeted gay man and the sadness, frustration and heartache that comes from keeping secrets so essential to who you are.
There is a next level of sadness at play here that I am reluctant to go into. I was lucky to watch the film without having read other reviews or wikipedia or IMDB, places that give away the secret Adrian is hiding. Again, it’s not a twist or even a major reveal, it’s an organic, growing part of the story. I just really loved watching the secret unfold even as the brilliant visual and vocal clues in the movie give the game away with intent.
It’s a wonderful piece of filmmaking and it’s not intended to fool you or gut punch you, it makes sense to the plot why Adrian is hiding something and the journey toward him actually saying what is happening out loud is powerful. Actor Corey Michael Smith does an incredible job of making Adrian genial and awkward and delicately pragmatic. The secret of his sexuality isn’t really much of a secret, as we come to find out, but the way in which the film gently layers this into the characters and the story is remarkable and emotional.
I haven’t even mentioned one of my favorite parts of 1985. Actress Jamie Chung plays Carly, Adrian’s ex-girlfriend whom he broke up with three years earlier when he left for New York. Now an aspiring stand up comic, Carly has no idea that Adrian is gay and when the two reconnect there is some awkward and brilliantly relatable truth to their interaction. Carly may seem like an extraneous character in some ways but her presence underlines dramatic moments from Adrian’s backstory that pay off with strong emotional impact.
1985 will be on my list of the best movies of the year. Few films have touched me as deeply as this movie has. It’s not an easy movie, it’s not a movie for an audience that doesn’t want to be challenged and it is not a movie that rewards you with easy answers. This is a deeply emotional and beautifully rendered film that, if you allow it to, will break your heart in ways that will make it stronger and more empathetic going forward. That, to me, is a better feeling than any 10 blockbusters can provide.
What a year for Black and White movies huh? Roma dazzled us with its arrival on Netflix last week with it’s crisp, clean, black and white sleekness. And here, in 1985, we get a black and white movie that uses this type of film to give age to the story, to evoke the time it is set within and to give the film a dreamlike or memory-like feeling. The grainy, slightly dark, look of 1985 gives the film the feeling of a story being recalled from memory, a little hazy, a little fuzzy, yet recalled with detail and deep emotion, as if we were in the mind of someone recalling this story and feeling what they felt at the time.
1985 is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand Services.
Aquaman stars Jason Mamoa as Arthur Curry, the one true King of Atlantis, though he doesn’t see it that way. Having been born to Queen Atlanna of Atlantis and a lighthouse keeper named Thomas (Temeura Morrison), Arthur doesn’t feel fully at home on either land or at sea. Despite having grown up under the tutelage of Vulko Willem Dafoe), his mother’s top advisor, and trained for royal combat, Arthur’s human side keeps him from embracing his Atlantean heritage.
Arthur, known to many as Aquaman following the events of Justice League, will soon have to make a decision about Atlantis, whether to become its King or unwilling subject. Arthur’s brother, Ohrm (Patrick Wilson) has risen to the throne in the absence of Atlanna and he has plans to bring destruction to land-dwellers for the pollution and violence that human beings have brought to the oceans around Atlantis.
To do this however, Ohrm must convince the seven kingdoms of the sea to get behind him as the Ocean Master, and allow him to take their armies into battle. All that stands in his way is Arthur who is guided by Mera (Amber Heard), the object of Ohrm’s affections and the daughter of one of the kings of the sea, King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren). Mera wants to prevent a war and believes that Arthur ascending to the throne is the only way to prevent it.
It is Mera who drives the plot, convincing Arthur to seek the legendary Trident of Atlan, the weapon belonging to the very first King of Atlantis. The journey takes them from the deserts of the Sahara to the oceans around Sicily and eventually to the very center of the Earth where deadly combat awaits around every corner. All the while, Ohrm is raising an army and plotting to destroy all life on land unless Aquaman can stop him.
Writing all of that out comes off even goofier than watching it unfold did. That said, it’s a good kind of goofy. Aquaman is a completely unpretentious comic book adventure that is both comic book nerdy and action movie macho. The film threads the needle of being just geeky enough and just enough of a macho action flick to satisfy audiences of both kinds. Jason Mamoa is the key to that tone. He’s a clever actor who gets the role he’s playing and does well to under-play the silliness to make room for his muscles.
Director James Wan, though best known for the gruesome Saw franchise and the spooky The Conjuring universe, is proving to be a director who can do just about anything. It helps that he transitioned from horror movies to The Fast and the Furious franchise to Aquaman. Aquaman takes the self-seriousness of Wan’s horror work and combines with the whacked out nonsense of the Furious franchise to create something that is incredibly silly but seriously well made.
It’s a tricky tone that Aquaman has to pull off in order to not be laughed off the screen and James Wan nails it. Aquaman is silly in the way the Fast and Furious franchise is but it has the competence and chops of Wan's lower budget horror work. It’s a rather masterful piece of direction which manages to make great use of monstrous CGI without losing sight of the compelling characters at the heart of the story.
Aquaman is not anything to be taken seriously but Wan is not careless, he takes pains to create a believable, dramatic world for Aquaman to exist within. This lends a context of believability to Aquaman, I believe in the universe that Aquaman exists in. It has a lived in quality even as it is at times slick and stylized to an almost ludicrous degree. Mamoa’s earthy approach to Arthur, that includes some genuine vulnerability and humor, keeps Aquaman, the character and the movie, human and sympathetic.
Mamoa isn’t going to win an Oscar anytime soon but he’s shown remarkable growth from Justice League to here with Aquaman. The all swaggering macho nonsense of Justice League is here shattered in favor of a lovable lug persona who happens to have super-strength, speed, agility and will. I was concerned that Mamoa would be the weakest part of Aquaman, given his lackluster and limited filmic track record but he’s far better than what I imagined.
For Mamoa and for James Wan’s remarkable direction that manages to keep this unwieldy, untidy monstrosity in a human and relatable place, I feel comfortable recommending Aquaman to anyone who has been curious about this character. If you liked Jason Mamoa from Game of Thrones or Justice League, you will very much enjoy him in Aquaman where he delivers a superstar performance filled with good humor, charisma and machismo.
Clint Eastwood’s career has been thought dead before but never by this critic. Never, until now. After suffering through his ‘experimental’ 15:17 to Paris earlier this year and now the misbegotten, The Mule, it feels as if Eastwood’s career as an auteur director is unquestionably over. Gone are the days of Unforgiven, Mystic RIver and Million Dollar Baby, deliberate and painstaking mood pieces that mixed character and drama brilliantly.
Now we have movies like The Mule where the diminishing returns of Eastwood’s cranky old racist character have finally reached their ugly nadir. The Mule is Eastwood at his most tone deaf, and I’m not talking about his political incorrectness, this is a full fledged failure and not some political screed. The Mule isn’t merely proudly un-PC, it’s downright anti-intelligent. Where Eastwood used to be able to make up for story flaws with strong filmmaking, his ear for dialogue has gone deaf and his eye for visual flair is nearly blind.
The Mule stars Eastwood as Earl Stone a famed grower of Daylilies. There is no need to remember this detail, it will play no role whatsoever in the movie. It’s an extraneous detail that plays like a failed rough draft that was never corrected in rewrites. That explanation may also work to answer Eastwood’s embarrassing early scenes in which he attends a flower show and delivers non-sequitur dialogue that would make Tommy Wiseau wince in recognition.
Earl chose flowers over his family, choosing the flower show over attending his daughter’s wedding The movie is so clumsy in detail that it makes it seem as if Earl has shown up at the wedding, he’s at a bar where there is a wedding party, before cutting to his having missed it and not speaking to his daughter (Alison Eastwood) again for more than a decade. He somehow manages to have a close relationship with his granddaughter, Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), though how he managed that without speaking to his daughter for most of the girl’s life is another clumsy detail in a series of dropped plot threads.
Again, none of this matters to the central plot of The Mule. Yes, Earl’s strained relationship with his family, including his openly antagonistic relationship with his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), is supposed to inform his character’s decisions in the main plot but the story is so muddled that he could have jettisoned the family story and it would not have altered the main narrative one iota. The Mule is shockingly lazy that way.
The main plot of The Mule finds Earl down on his luck with his flower farm in foreclosure. Desperate for money, Earl accepts a shady job from a lowlife friend of his granddaughter. The job involves getting paid big money to drive drug shipments from Texas to Earl’s home city of Peoria, Illinois. Earl is perfect for the job because as an old white man driving a pickup truck, he is the single least likely person on the planet to get pulled over.
No joke, he drives without a seat belt on for most of the movie and is never in danger of being stopped by police This could be a great opportunity to examine privilege and stereotypes but Eastwood shows no interest in exploring why an old white guy seemingly never has to worry about being questioned by authorities. Instead, the film appears to be a comic drama about Eastwood singing country songs in the cab of his truck while delivering load after load of illicit drugs.
There is, I guess, some danger in the plot. The drug dealers threaten Earl’s life a lot and wave guns around a lot but he doesn’t react to any of it, as if age means that you don’t fear death or being beaten by drug dealers anymore. As much as money is his motivation, boredom could also play a role in Earl’s choice to become a mule. There appear to be no stakes on the line for Earl who uses his advanced age as an excuse to do whatever he wants.
Perhaps that’s meant to be funny, Earl’s give no you know what attitude. Indeed, Eastwood could have been playing for laughs but there is nothing in Eastwood’s direction that indicates he’s being anything less than serious about this story. Just because it is terribly clumsy doesn’t mean it isn’t also dour in that way that bad melodramas are always dour as a way of seeming more dramatic than they really are.
The Mule is downright dreary as it trudges to a finish that is unpredictable only because it is so messy it’s impossible to predict where we are headed. The film has no narrative momentum, it has no forward motion at times, scenes start, linger and peter out before being replaced by another. The scenes of Eastwood driving and singing along to old country and pop songs are endless and repeated to a torturous degree.
Eastwood’s decline as a director is stunning. I won’t attribute it to his age because I still believe him capable of delivering a good movie. I think the issue is that he no longer cares for making movies. It’s my feeling that he likes keeping busy and collecting paychecks. 15:17 to Paris and The Mule are movies from a filmmaker who has nothing better to do and decided that making a movie with his buddies is a good way to pass the time.
Here’s hoping Mr. Eastwood had a better time making The Mule than we did watching it.
Mortal Engines is a pretty big mess. It’s not terrible but this Peter Jackson produced CGI epic is lacking in numerous ways. Aside from a grand ambition, it definitely has that, Mortal Engines lacking in the kind of engaging, compelling characters that are needed to compete with the massive and rather uninteresting CGI machinery on display. The stars of Mortal Engines are not the actors but the massive machines and those machines, though impressively rendered, aren’t nearly engaging enough to make a good movie.
Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar stars in The Mortal Engines as Hester Shaw. Hester is seeking revenge against the man who murdered her mother, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), chief weapons manufacturer for the roving city of London. What do I mean by ‘roving city’ you ask? In this universe, cities are not stuck in one place. Following a massive, apocalyptic event cities became mobile, rebuilding themselves atop massive wheels and running down other cities to steal their resources.
Hester is aboard a small mining city when London attacks it and takes hold of it. Getting on board London, Hester gets her chance to kill Valentine right away and manages to stab him before a kid named Tom (Robert Sheehan) tackles her and then chases her off the edge of the city. Before she goes, Hester tells Tom her secret about Valentine and when Tom tells Valentine what he knows, he kicks Tom off the edge of London.
Forced into the wild, Hester and Tom team up in their attempt to stay alive while Valentine survives his stabbing and sets off after someone who wants Hester dead as much as he does. Shrike is a CGI character with an incredible back story and a far more interesting storyline as a reanimated warrior machine, like a steampunk Terminator. Hester had made Shrike a promise after he saved her life and now he wants to kill her to collect on her debt
Had Mortal Engines settled on the story of Shrike and Hester, it would be one hell of a movie. Shrike is the most interesting and well built character in the movie. He’s incredibly dangerous and volatile but he has this shred of a memory that keeps him tethered to his former humanity. It was that shred that led him to keep Hester alive when he found her near death following the murder of her mother and to raise her from the age of 8 until London arrived on former European shores and she set out for revenge.
The flashbacks we see to young Hester and Shrike are more compelling than anything remotely related to Hugo Weaving’s quest for power or the neutered romance between Tom and Hester which couldn’t be more perfunctory if the studio had announced the romantic plot in a press release. Hilmar and Sheehan have the chemistry of a brother and sister who don’t particularly know or care for each other.
Make a movie about Shrike and Hester that is part Leon The Professional and part steampunk Terminator Judgement Day and you’ve got yourself quite a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we get isn’t nearly as interesting. The characters do grow on you a little as you get closer to the end of Mortal Engine but there is never a moment where they stand apart from or above the monstrous and inhuman CGI.
Even the most skillful computer generated image cannot compete with our connection to another human being. Say what you will about the creation of Gollum in Lord of the Rings or Caesar in the modern Planet of the Apes, they are nothing without the humanity of Andy Serkis behind them. We’re supposed to be impressed by the massive moving cities and the bizarre airships and weapons of mass destruction but without characters we care about around them, it’s like watching a very expensive live action cartoon, minus the laughs.
I have nothing against the young actors in Mortal Engines, they do what they can with these thin characters. The problem is director Christian Rivers who assumes we care about these characters without giving us a reason too care. Rivers has a habit of introducing characters as if their faces matter to the moment. When we meet Tom and we meet Hester, we get reveals of their faces as if we are supposed to recognize them but we don’t.
It’s not the actors fault, they are just not known to most of us watching this movie. Perhaps audiences in Iceland will cheer when Ms Hilmar’s face is revealed for the first time but most Americans will be trying to place her. Sheehan has the bland good looks of an English Justin Long but he lacks any of that actors modest charisma and likability. One actor, who I can’t even find in the IMDB cast list, is given a reveal as if we are absolutely supposed to recognize him, the camera lingers on his face and he kind of looks like actors we’ve seen before but he isn’t and we're left to wonder.
I don’t understand many of the choices made regarding Mortal Engines but most especially, I don’t understand the title. I have seen the entire movie and I assumed at some point the title would come to make a semblance of sense. But no, at no point does anyone bother to give a reason for the movie to be called Mortal Engines. I could make something up perhaps but I honestly don’t care enough about this movie to try that hard.
Mortal Engines is far from terrible. It’s competent and passes by well enough. It’s expensive and the expense is all on the screen in the high end CGI but there isn’t anything compelling enough to recommend you spend money on it. The characters are thin and dull, the romance is DOA and the action is of a kind you could get in any of a dozen movies you might actually enjoy and connect with.
The biggest sin of Mortal Engines however, is creating a better movie within their bad movie and leaving us so unsatisfied as we dream of what could have been. No joke, that Shrike and Hester movie had so much potential. Shrike is the best character in Mortal Engines and he’s not even real. He’s given more human qualities and dimension than the male romantic lead and his tragic backstory combined with Hester’s has a depth and complexity the rest of Mortal Engines can’t begin to evoke. I hate Mortal Engines for not being about Shrike and Hester.
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse is one of the smartest and funniest movies of 2018. I’m not qualifying that with the phrase ‘animated movie.’ I mean this is one of the smartest and funniest movies of 2018 of animated or otherwise. This whip-smart comic book adaptation crackles with life and wit and ingenuity. In the character of Miles Morales, Marvel has found a modern hero who looks, talks and acts like a truly modern hero.
That is not meant to be a shot at Tom Holland, the young actor currently tasked with playing Spider-Man in live action form, he’s terrific as well, but his Spider-man fits much more neatly into the mold of a traditional superhero as opposed to Miles who feels like something we’ve never seen before, and not merely because of his racial mix. Miles’ anxiety, his fumbling, his art, his taste in music, and his family, are like nothing we’ve seen before in a superhero.
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse features the voice of Shameik Moore as Miles Morales. Miles is an above average teenager, an artist with a flair for spray paint and tagging. This talent does not sit well with Miles’ father, Jeff (Bryan Tyree Henry), though it is encouraged by his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). It is Uncle Aaron who takes Miles to a secret spot in the subway where he can practice his art, outside the disapproving gaze of his police officer father.
It is in this underground area where Miles finds himself bitten by a radioactive spider, though he doesn’t know it until the following morning. Suddenly, Miles finds that his clothes no longer fit, his hands are super sticky and he can almost sense what people are thinking, as if reading their minds. He tries to chalk it up to puberty but when he starts sticking to and walking on walls he’s forced to the realization that something bigger has happened.
Miles seeks out Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Nick Johnson from New Girl) almost by accident. Miles’ ‘Spider-Sense’ leads him to the underground lair of The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) where Spider-Man is already in a pitched battle with Fisk’s rogues gallery of baddies. Spider-Man agrees to help Miles but before he can, Fisk powers up a massive super collider and dimensions of space and time begin to combine and collapse.
Eventually, Miles will find that several different versions of Spider-Man have entered his universe and they all must team together to stop The Kingpin and keep him from using his Super Collider before it destroys all of New York City. Among our visiting heroes is a black and white, noir Spider-Man (Nicholas Cage), Spider-Woman, aka Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and the animated Amazing Spider-Pig (comedian John Mulaney, stealing every scene).
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse is the latest work of the team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who shot to fame with The Lego Movie. They bring the same wonderful irreverence and anarchy to Into The Spider-Verse as they did to The Lego Movie. Into the Spider-Verse demonstrates how much this team has grown and matured as they take the creation of comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and elevate it with their witty animation and rocket like pacing that also happens to have pitch perfect comic timing.
The gags of Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse are as good as just about any comedy in 2018. The film is a genuine delight with each of our good guy hero characters getting a moment to be hilariously funny and heroic. The mixture of characters is also exceptional, each one, even Spider-Pig, or especially Spider-Pig, could captain their own movie franchise based off the evidence in Into the Spider-Verse.
I would go into detail and examples of this film’s genius but I don’t want to spoil anything. You need to see this movie and see it on the big screen. The film is an unending delight, fantastic animation, wonderful characters, a strong, emotional story, a hero's journey and a big sense of humor. I am quite surprised to say that Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse is among my favorite movies of 2018 and ranks right next to Black Panther as one of the best movies made from a Marvel Comic Book.
Okay, one spoiler, Stan Lee makes a cameo and it is perhaps his best one yet. If you're fan of Stan Lee, be prepared to choke up a little.
Acting legend Glenn Close has wanted to star in The Wife, an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Meg Wolitzer since 2014. Now we know why her passion for the project never waned. This juicy role as the long-suffering wife of an insufferable literary genius, played by Jonathan Pryce, has thrust Close into the Academy Award conversation despite few people even knowing the movie existed prior to Close earning a recent Golden Globe nomination.
The Wife stars Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, the wife of well-known author and renowned blowhard, Professor Joe Castleman. As we join the story, Joe receives a call in the middle of the night. It’s the Nobel Prize committee and they’ve called to inform him that his latest novel has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s certainly an honor to celebrate but as we watch Joan react to her husband’s good fortune, we get a strong sense that the celebration will be short lived.
When we flashback in The Wife, we see how Joan and Joe Castleman met and it’s more than a little awkward. Joe was Joan’s literature professor at Smith College in 1956. The young Joan is portrayed by Close’s daughter, Annie Stark, providing a wonderful sense of verisimilitude. Joan was enamored of her older, married teacher and as we learn about Joe’s proclivities it’s not hard to imagine that Joan wasn’t the first student to have private time with the professor.
Joan had aspired to be a writer herself as a young woman but gave it up in favor of being with Joe and raising their two children. That’s the story they tell anyway, what we will learn as this story unfolds is something far more messy, complicated and compelling. The Wife doesn’t have a ‘twist’ per se, but the way the story plays with our perceptions of this elderly couple and allows us to make assumptions before shattering those assumptions, is one of the fascinating and entertaining aspects of this wonderfully crafted film.
Glenn Close is flawless in The Wife. At first it appears like a role she could have acted in her sleep but just as the story begins to build, she begins to reveal this character and it’s irresistibly compelling. Joan reveals more and more of her pain, frustration and anguish with each passing moment and does so with no histrionics, simply with her eyes, her inflection. She creates drama where we didn’t realize there was any and it’s magnificent.
Each twist of the tale holds a new fascination in Close’s character. It’s easy to assume that you know what you think happened in the shared past of Joan and Joe but the way Close reveals it hides the plot mechanics, you don’t notice the story moving forward, you notice Close willing us all closer to the ending and a reveal and nothing terribly over-dramatic but just perfectly calibrated melodrama generated from her performance.
The Wife is fascinating because Glenn Close and Joan are fascinating. Close invests a lifetime of experience in this character in a way that appears effortless. It’s one of the best performances of 2018 and in a movie that, even I, someone who is supposed to follow such things, was not aware of. It’s a revelatory performance and a great reminder that Close is one of our finest living actresses.
Film Critics tend to be accused of automatically loving movies that are subtitled and in black and white. It’s a trope of my kind that we will always heap praise upon a foreign film while bagging on the latest Hollywood offering that earns millions of dollars. People assume this has to do with critics establishing our highbrow credentials but my more than 16 years of experience has taught me why this trend takes hold.
Having spent well over a decade seeing every Hollywood wide release movie in the theaterI can attest, it begins to wear you down over time. You, dear reader, may only see one teen oriented slasher film but I see 5 or 6 per year. You see perhaps three blockbusters per year on average, I see them all. You see maybe one Young Adult romance per year, I am inundated with them. Eventually, after experiencing the same Hollywood formula year after year after year, your brain begins to beg for something different and since subtitled black and white movies are a rarity in this day and age, it makes sense that we critics gravitate towards them, if only to break the monotony.
Roma is the latest of the black and white subtitled movies to receive lavish praise from my kind. Roma has 99% positive reviews on RottenTomatoes.com and has been honored with a Best Picture nomination at the Critics Choice Movie Awards, the first Foreign Film in the CCMA’s 24 year history. Critics adore this minimalist and deeply personal story from the brilliant director Alfonso Cuaron and I think I am a fan. Or, is it just so welcomingly different that I just appreciate the difference. Let’s find out.
Roma tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young maid working in the home of a well off family in Mexico in the early 1970's. Cleo’s life is a routine of cleaning and cooking and bonding with the four young children in the family. As we watch we get the sense that Cleo is almost like part of the family… almost. Little scenes in Roma give us a sense of the boundaries that the adults in the family work awkwardly to maintain.
The family is beginning to splinter as the story goes on but that’s well in the background. The forefront of the story is Cleo and her day to day routine which she breaks only occasionally to go on dates with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a handsome but unusual young man, deeply dedicated to the martial arts. Fermin pursues Cleo but when she ends up pregnant, that pursuit ends abruptly and Cleo is left to take care of herself and worry as to whether she will be able to keep her job.
Although I have given it a linear description, there really isn’t much of a story in Roma. This isn’t a traditional kind of movie. Director Alfonso Cuaron’s aim appears to be an authentic portrait of the life of a low wage working women in the early 1970’s, perhaps a callback to someone he knew when he was young. It’s deeply affecting as a portrait of the character of Cleo who is compellingly portrayed by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio. 3
Cuaron, rather impassively, floats his camera like a fly on a wall, observing at a distance the life of Cleo and the travails of her day to day routine. The panning shots of the home of the central family are quite beautiful and they set you up for even more beautiful, sweeping images when the film ventures out of the home, including a beautifully surreal firefighting scene in which the attendants of a New Year’s Eve Party are drafted in to help put out a forest fire. It’s a scene that would be comfortably at home in a Fellini movie, especially when a costume wearing man begins to sing.
Alfonso Cuaron handled his own cinematography on Roma and his work is immaculate. The look of the film is gorgeous with the black & white photography giving the movie age and depth and a unique beauty that a director could likely only get from Black & White film. The film is flawlessly lensed and the technical filmmaking aspect of Roma is the real reason to see it. Rarely are movies this beautiful to just admire.
With all of that said, I am not sure how to recommend Roma. I have come to the conclusion that the film worked on me. I do like Roma a great deal, and not just because I am bored with every other type of movie in the market. The beauty and warmth of the film are more than enough for me to give a recommendation but there must be a caveat. Roma takes a long time to warm up. The film is deliberate and anyone looking for instant gratification should find another movie.
The film is kind of gross early on with an extra special focus on a very, very messy dog. Then there is some highly unnecessary full male nudity which really put me off. I understand why it is there, from a character standpoint and from a story standpoint, but I think the point could have been made elsewhere in the movie that this particular character is a childish lout. I don’t need to see him or anyone performing nude martial arts.
So, who do I recommend Roma to, since I am recommending the movie? The audience is fans of awards shows. If you are someone who really loves awards shows and wants to see all of the nominees, you will need to see Roma. It would come as no surprise, given the critical consensus, if Roma is nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It deserves that level of praise. If however, you aren’t an awards junkie, you probably aren’t a hardcore film buff either. That probably means that Roma is not for you.
Roma debuts on Netflix on Friday, January 14th.
Destroyer stars Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, a former undercover cop turned burned out homicide detective. We get two sides of Erin Bell, her life when she was promoted from a Sheriff’s Deputy to being an undercover operative embedded in a bank robbery gang, to today when Erin looks as if life has her thoroughly defeated. Oftentimes simply being de-glammed is enough to make us take notice of a performance but Kidman brings a genuine edge that goes beyond her looks and manner in Destroyer.
We meet Detective Bell when she arrives in bad shape at a crime scene. At the scene, a body is laid out and Bell indicates she recognizes the corpse. Other detectives give us a strong sense of how Detective Bell is viewed by the rest of her department, they want her to leave the crime scene and let them handle it. That's likely because she looks as if she hasn’t slept in days and is in no shape to work. They have no idea how right they are.
Destroyer was directed by the ingenious Karyn Kusama who is best known for her debut feature, Girlfight, about a female boxer. That film was notable in a similar way to Destroyer in that Michelle Rodriguez took a traditionally male character and invested it with a uniquely feminine toughness. Kusama is also known for the horror movie Jennifer’s Body which in recent months has been getting another look from critics who’ve taken note of the strong feminist themes that run throughout Kusama’s work.
This is notable in Destroyer in how Kidman is playing the kind of hard bitten, cynical character usually reserved for male protagonists. Detective Bell has faults that we’ve seen before in male characters but that get flipped around with it coming from a female perspective and it does freshen up the cliche a great deal. Kidman doesn’t play up any mannish qualities, it’s just that the specific traits of this character are usually assigned to men.
It’s a fascinating performance and while I have focused too much on Kidman’s looks, I am doing so because her looks, the features, the worn, lived in, well-earned wrinkles and generally dishevelled look is an important part of this character. She's unvarnished for a reason, she’s given up on the basic comforts of life. Something so traumatic has happened that she’s turned most of her life over to either her job or to the hard drinking that helps to cope with the job and her memories, fears and shame.
She’s also neglected her daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who appears to be headed down a wrong path, one all too similar to Erin’s. The relationship between Erin and her daughter has always been strained; Erin found out she was pregnant on the same day that Shelby’s father was killed in a gun battle. I won’t spoil the role that this played in Erin’s undercover work or the dark secret she’s hiding throughout the film but all of it coalesces into Erin’s dark story in devastating fashion.
Toby Kebbell plays the main antagonist in Destroyer, a figure from Erin’s past whose return triggers a series of violent outbursts and leads to several bodies piling up. It’s a battle of wills with greed and revenge at the heart. Kebbell is a rather minimal presence physically in the film but his legend and his crimes hang over the entire story to the point where his appearances come to feel as if he is literally haunting Erin.
It’s an exceptional and unique way to tell a revenge story. Destroyer is minimalist in story presentation with dialogue building Kebbell’s villain into a monster and Kidman delivering on making Bell desperate and feral like a cornered animal as she pursues him. The way the story plays out is a shocker and a real clever one. Pay close attention or you might miss a couple key details that play into the ending. I can tell you, it’s both satisfying and bleak.
Destroyer is not a fun movie, it’s not an easy sit. The film is combative and pushy but Kidman’s performance makes it highly compelling. Kidman is Oscar-worthy not for her deglamorized look but for the grit that she brings to this character which combines vulnerability and street toughness into one of the most unique and yet familiar characters I’ve ever seen. It’s not just the novelty of a woman getting to portray characteristics typically assigned to male characters, Kidman makes Bell a uniquely fascinating figure, and for that, I recommend Destroyer.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was intended to be western anthology series and not an anthology movie. But when the Coen Brothers and Netflix came to the decision not to move forward with it as a series, the idea came to make the vignettes that were already completed into one anthology movie ala The Twilight Zone or Creepshow from the 80’s movies that weren’t one story but multiple stories with different casts but similar themes.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains six stories with the theme of death and boredom in the old west running through each but with that twist of the Coen Brothers dark wit to set it apart from anything you might otherwise recognize. These incredible mini-movies within The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are better than most of the movies that have been released theatrically this year. I know I would rather pay to watch the Coen Brothers make a 24 minute movie than watch almost any teen-centric horror movie or YA romance released this year in theaters.
The first of the six mini-movies is the title story, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Actor Tim Blake Nelson portrays Buster Scruggs, a songsmith and gunslinger on his way to a new town. Buster has a habit of singing his thoughts even if only his horse is listening. He’s also a wanted man as he is the fastest gun in the west and an accomplished killer. We get to see Buster’s handiwork when he stops for a drink and winds up killing an entire bar full of thugs while barely breaking a sweat.
Next, Buster rolls into a new town and immediately announces himself in search of a card game. When Buster refuses to ante up on a hand that isn’t his, he winds up in a dangerous situation with a man named Surly Joe (Clancy Brown). I will leave you to find out how this confrontation goes down. It’s both easy and difficult to guess what is going to happen in this vignette. Buster is the title character but the build appears to be toward his demise. You’ll have to see it for yourself but I loved the clever way the story ended.
The next vignette stars James Franco as an outlaw attempting to rob a bank settled somewhere in the midst of a desert. The bank teller is a wild-eyed nut, played by Coen Brothers regular, Stephen Root. When Franco’s outlaw attempts his robbery he is thwarted by this crazy codger and his DIY bulletproof outfit that must be seen to be believed. Franco has the funniest line in the movie, a dry, rye observation that is dark at its heart and brilliantly timed. Let’s just say that gallows humor is quite literal in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The third vignette is a brilliantly told story about an old prospector played by the perfectly grizzled Tom Waits. The eclectic singer-songwriter channels his inner Gabby Hayes for an ingeniously crazy performance as a man who has perhaps spent a little too much time alone pursuing gold like Gollum searches for the ring of power. This is another poetic and unpredictable piece of storytelling that has a tremendously unexpected twist ending. Waits is a genius who fits perfectly into the world of the Coen Brothers.
Up next is a strange and sad story about a pair of hucksters with a unique gimmick. Liam Neeson stars as a man who travels from town to town putting on a remarkably unique show. He’s happened upon a man with no arms and no legs, played by Harry Potter veteran, Harry Melling, whose orations of legendary political speeches, Shakespearean sonnets and poems and bible verses have earned him a minor amount of fame. Neeson carries the armless and legless man with him everywhere, cares for his every need and appears to have been doing so for some time as we join the story. This is slowest and perhaps the darkest of the vignettes but even as the least of the movie, it’s better than most theatrical features in 2018.
My favorite vignette in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is The Gal Who Got Rattled. In this story, a brother and sister, played by Jefferson Mays and Zoe Kazan, are joining a wagon train to Oregon where the brother has promised that he has a job waiting and a friend he can marry his sister off to. Unfortunately, the brother dies of Cholera on the trip and the sister is left at the mercy of the wagon train.
Bill Heck and Grainger Hines are driving the wagon train and as the sister looks for a way to survive, Heck takes a liking to her and the two begin a very chaste and very sweet courtship. Tragedy hangs in the air and yet, Kazan and Heck are so lovely together that we allow ourselves to be lulled into caring about them and forgetting for a moment that each of these vignettes have been about tragic death.
I won’t spoil the ending, it’s too perfect for me to take the moment from you dear reader. Watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and let Kazan and Heck draw you in and win you over. You will be blown away by the incredible way in which this small story plays out and combines classic western elements with grand dramatic tragedy. There’s also a little dog named President Pierce who plays a surprising role in how this story plays out, even getting a dramatic and breathtaking moment.
The final vignette may or may not be a trip into the afterlife. Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Jonjo O’Neill and Chelcie Ross star in the closing story and they have an exceptional banter about life and people and the afterlife sort of sneaks up on you. Gleeson and O’Neill each sing in this segment and do so beautifully, delivering sad, Irish tunes that brilliantly fit the mournfulness that hovers throughout this segment.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the best thing Netflix has ever produced. The film is remarkable with the Coen Brothers at the absolute peak of their game combining their love of western tropes with remarkably authentic characters that not only reflect classic Hollywood westerns of the 30’s and 40’s but with the blood, guts and gloom of the 60’s Italian westerns. The film is darkly funny but also incredibly easy to watch and enjoy. Stream The Ballad of Buster Scruggs immediately and if you don’t have Netflix, get it so you can see this movie.
Vice is an attempt at satire of the former Vice President Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, though Dick Cheney is a large enough target for satire, Vice doesn’t have the teeth to make the satire work. Limp jabs at his time running the White House and the straightforward presentation of Cheney’s life, from his time as an alcoholic lineman in wyoming through his time in the White House and his final heart transplant, the satire is so weak that it never lands a single blow on the former VP.
Christian Bale stars in Vice as Dick Cheney and the transformation is remarkable. Bale, one of the more handsome men in Hollywood, turns seamlessly into Dick Cheney. Putting on weight and undergoing four hours a day of makeup, Bale enhances the look with his voice and manner which brings Cheney to life on screen better than you could imagine. In fact, Bale is so good that he’s part of the reason that the satire of Vice doesn’t land.
Vice proceeds to tell the life of Dick Cheney in a manner that mixes up the timeframes of Cheney’s life. We start with Vice President Cheney on September 11th, after he had been rushed to an underground bunker and took over calling the shots on how the United States responded to the terror attack. The scene reflects rumors of how VP Cheney was usurping Presidential powers and the machinations are vaguely treated as menacing but the movie goes on to, unintentionally, sell the idea that Cheney, being more experienced and prepared for this moment than was President Bush, was right to takeover from Bush in this moment.
Then we flash back to how Dick Cheney got his start. In the early 1960’s Dick Cheney appeared headed nowhere. Cheney was working as a lineman in Wyoming. We see Cheney working for unscrupulous phone company engineers who care little for the employees who have little to no training or safety equipment. Cheney worked and then spent hours in bars getting drunk and getting into fights and getting arrested.
It isn’t until his wife Lynn (Amy Adams) has to bail him out after a DUI that Cheney’s life is finally turned around. Lynn demands that Dick get cleaned up or she will take their daughter and leave and from there, the film cuts to Washington D.C where Dick is now working as a congressional intern. In the meantime between when he was a drunken lineman to working in Congress, Cheney graduated from college and discovered an appreciation for politics.
Cheney’s start in Washington D.C came when he fell in with then Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Cheney was Rumsfeld’s intern and it is unexpected to see the Cheney we know today as a toady for someone even more unscrupulous and crude than himself but these scenes aren’t humorous, they are just sort of there. These scenes layer in important details about Cheney’s history during Watergate, his fast rise in the ranks of the Ford Administration and his machinations within the Reagan White House, but they are the least interesting parts of Vice.
Vice doesn’t pick up strong momentum until Cheney becomes George W. Bush’s choice to be Vice President in 1999. Sam Rockwell plays George W. Bush as the flighty fratboy that the left has always believed him to be. It’s not a bad performance but there are more laughs in Rockwell’s manner, his style, the charming way he plays Bush than from anything Bush and Cheney actually do. The scenes between Bale and Rockwell are rarely funny but they aren't dramatic either, they play off of media perceptions of both men without providing much insight.
That said, it was during the Bush Administration when Cheney, the character we know from many books and profiles begins to emerge. We see his moves on the Iraq war, the way he used the law manipulate the country into a place where torture was legal and the film does begin to satirize the Cheney of lore as a power hungry, no-nonsense, bully. Is it funny? Kind of, in the absurdly straight-forward way that McKay frames the scenes and uses history to reflect these as poor decisions, but it is in conflct with Bale's performance as Cheney who doesn't appear in on the fact that he's supposed to be the villain. Playing Cheney as having strong convictions is not exactly the satire we are expecting.
It is during the time when Cheney is deciding whether to become Vice President that McKay relies on an odd but surprisingly effective device similar to one that he used in his Academy Award nominated The Big Short. McKay uses fantasy sequences as punchlines to punctuate the life of Dick Cheney. The first is a fake out ending that has Cheney retiring quietly after having been George H.W Bush’s Defense Secretary and leaving politics to become the CEO of Halliburton and leaving politics behind forever.
This scene only evokes a bit of a chuckle and not a big laugh but I did enjoy seeing the credits begin to role at the start of what was to be the 3rd act of Cheney’s life. This fantasy moment plays like wish fulfillment for those who despised the Bush-Cheney team and the joke is well-timed with the credits rolling far longer than you expect them to before we cut back to Cheney taking a call from George W. Bush and arranging a meeting regarding the Vice Presidency.
McKay goes back to the well of the fantasy sequence once more not long after this. The film employs a mysterious narrator, Jesse Plemons, who makes brief appearances throughout the movie, setting up a surprisingly effective reveal near the end of the movie. The narrator explains that we can’t really know what Lynn and Dick talked about the night that he decided to become the Vice President so the film goes into a remarkable, and quite funny, Shakespearean sequence in which Bale and Adams banter in the words of Shakespearean villains planning to carve up the world in their image.
For a brief moment Vice achieves its satirical potential. Cheney as the over the top Shakespearean machiavelli figure is the perfect portrayal of the former VP. This moment combines our perception of Cheney with a touch of the reality of Cheney as a guy who’s ability to snake his way through the halls of power, taking power where he can, biding his time until he could turn things to his advantage, Shakespeare offers the perfect comic template to combine the aspects of Cheney that have taken hold in the public imagination.
This, however, is only one scene. It’s quite a funny scene and exceptionally well performed but it can’t make up for what is lacking in Vice which is a stronger through line of humor. The film doesn’t push the envelope beyond these fantasy sequences. It’s fine if the filmmakers are intending for us to makeup our own mind about Cheney but I was expecting something more forceful, more directly critical. At the very least, I expected the Darth Vader-esque take on Cheney that holds the public imagination but the film, and especially Christian Bale, fails to push hard enough on that villainous side of our perception rendering the film a toothless quality.
Vice is far too dry for my taste. Cheney is a huge satirical target and Vice doesn’t land a glove on him. George W. Bush gets far more of a roasting in Vice than Cheney does. In the bare minimum of scenes Sam Rockwell gives us an SNL worthy roasting of the former President as the slightly dopey daddy’s boy who was President in name only, a persona that many left leaning audiences will enjoy. It’s more savagely critical than anything Bale does with Chaney though both performances are solid. I just don’t know what the filmmakers, specifically director Adam McKay, is attempting to say about Dicj Cheney in Vice.
If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the best movies of 2018. This deeply affecting drama from the director of the Academy Award winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, is one of the most human and thoughtful films about life, love, and race we’ve seen in some time. Jenkins, adapting the work of the late, brilliant author James Baldwin, having cultural renaissance with this movie and last year’s documentary on his life, I Am Not Your Negro, gets to the heart of the cultural experience of racism like few films ever have.
If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of a young couple in love, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James). Tish and Fonny have known each other since before they could remember. Their earliest memories are of baths together at an age when sex was merely a gender. They’ve spent their entire lives falling in love until finally they are old enough to understand it. Unfortunately, for their love story, they are torn apart by hatred.
We meet Fonny when he is behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. We will come to know what happened but for the earliest part of the film we must trust that Trish’s entreaties about how she is working to get him out of jail center on his innocence. Just as important however, as Fonny’s incarceration is the news that Tish is pregnant. At just 19 years old and with Fonny behind bars, they are going to be parents.
Given the circumstances, it falls to Tish to inform their families of their situation. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina Hall) is practical but also loving and deeply compassionate. Her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo) is unpredictable but deeply loyal. The trouble comes from Fonny’s divorced parents, the deeply devout Mrs Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis) and her hustler ex-husband Frank (Michael Beach) who is prepared to do anything for his son, if only to make up for having been an absent father.
That’s the set up of sorts but the heart of If Beale Street Could Talk is not in a linear narrative but in the flashback structure that builds brilliantly toward the reveal of how Fonny ended up in jail and how that reflects the moment in which the film is set, the early 1970’s in Harlem and how that reflects on America in 2018. At that time, it was as if all young black men in Harlem had to spend time in jail by some predetermination of racist police activity. It’s as if it was merely Fonny’s turn and that seeming inevitability is devastating.
The incredible Bryan Tyree Henry plays a supporting role in If Beale Street Could Talk as Daniel, an old friend of Fonny’s. We come to know Daniel’s story of having similarly been recently in jail and his story provides a gut-wrenching prologue to what is lurking in Fonny’s near future. Daniel could provide an alibi for Fonny in the crime he is accused of but his recent stint in jail is seen as disqualifying of his credibility and an awful cycle of such things emerges to deepen the tragedy.
I’m painting a very bleak pictures of If Beale Street Could Talk but the film is not entirely what I have described. Much of what I mentioned here is subtext, the front of the story, the bulk of the narrative and the beauty of If Beale Street Could Talk is the remarkably poetic and thrilling love story between Fonny and Tish. Much like the story of how Fonny ends up in jail, director Barry Jenkins layers in the love story of Fonny and Tish using flashbacks to the beauty, innocence and romance of their burgeoning love story.
If Beale Street Could Talk contains one of the best, if not the absolute BEST scene in any movie in 2018. Having just looked at an apartment together and Fonny having charmed Tish into taking a risk with him on a place that isn’t quite finished being built, the two walk down the street holding hands and basking in the moment. It’s an almost wordless scene, gracefully filmed and knowing that this is the scene that immediately precedes how Fonny ended up in jail only serves to underline the beauty of the moment. It’s a perfect scene, gorgeously cinematic, heart flutteringly romantic and haunting.
The score also underlines the perfection of this moment. Composer Nicholas Britell’s gorgeous string symphony is at its most moving and evocative in this moment. It’s one of the finest moments of score and image that I have seen in any movie in a long while and it was this moment that made me completely fall in love with If Beale Street Could Talk, a film that combines image, story and sound in breathtaking fashion.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterpiece, a lyrical, lovely, exceptionally acted masterpiece. Stephen James, Kiki Layne, Regina Hall and Colman Domingo deliver note perfect performances and director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton capture the performances in immaculate fashion. Few films in 2018, and indeed, the last decade or so, have moved me as deeply as If Beale Street Could Talk.
Free Solo is one of the most strange and harrowing experiences I have had at the movies in 2018. This deification of free climber Alex Honnold which attempts to portray Honnold as a heroic figure and not a man with a death wish or a callous disregard for life, is also wildly, enthralling. Free Solo contains a full 20 minute sequence that is one of the most riveting of this or any year as we watch Honnold do something no one has ever done before and lived to tell.
Free Solo introduces Alex Honnold as a legend already in progress. Among rock climbers, Alex is a God. Alex has made some of the most difficult climbs in history, all around the globe and all without the use of safety equipment. What Alex does is called Free Solo and it very simply means that he climbs mountains without the use of a rope, a harness or anything else that could keep him alive if he were to lose his grip and fall from hundreds of feet in the air.
We meet a restless Alex as he is once again pondering an attempt at the most difficult Free Solo Climb on American soil. No one in history has completed a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California but Alex has had the idea to do it for some time. As Alex recounts in the documentary, he had been to ‘El Cap’ three years in a row with the intent of possibly making the attempt at a free solo, only to back out.
Nerves are a rarity for Alex and we don’t really know what it was that drove him to abandon his previous attempts. Was he afraid? Did his research of the mountain, climbing with safety equipment, discourage him? Don’t expect to find out much about Alex’s thought process. A key scene in Free Solo has Alex undergo an MRI to see if his brain works any differently than normal people and indeed, his amygdala, the part of the brain that senses an emergency or fear, is less active than the average brain. So, we can rule out fear, for the most part.
Were it not for Alex’s girlfriend, a non-climber named Sanni, we might not learn much of anything about Alex beyond his climbing exploits. He’s not a big personality, he’s not particularly charismatic, he’s friendly enough but if you were to ask about anything other than climbing rocks it’s easy to imagine his level of discomfort or disinterest in any other topic. Rock Climbing is everything for Alex Honnold and El Cap is the closest thing he has to a religious experience.
Free Solo was directed by Honnold’s friends Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin a married couple and fellow climbers who’ve been with Alex for a few years. They too have an obsession with climbing as their previous director effort was Meru which followed Chin’s ascent of the 4000 foot mountain climb in the Himalayas on a rock known as ‘the shark fin.’ Rock climbing, as portrayed in Meru and especially here in Free Solo is portrayed as pure obsession.
There is a dark complexity to Free Solo that is inescapable for those of us in the audience. Free Solo at once is quite direct about the danger of free solo climbing and yet still manages to portray Alex Honnold as a hero. There is a sequence in Free Solo in which we hear about the number of people, some of whom are contemporaries of Alex, men he had admired and emulated who have died, falling from incredible heights during a free solo climb.
Alex is almost indifferent to these facts. Alex is downright callous in his disregard of how these men died. The filmmakers are similarly unaffected by these scenes that they chose to include. They don’t so much as confront Alex with these men’s deaths as offer these men's’ lives as a plot point in order to demonstrate how incredible what Alex is doing truly is. It’s not hard to imagine that these scenes are in the movie simply to deflect the idea that they are simply making a hagiography of Alex that glories in his manly pursuit of his dangerous vocation.
That would, at least, be a more honest movie. Instead, what we get is a movie that is rather dismissive of how dangerous free solo climbing is in favor of showing how cool free solo climbing is. Indeed, I cannot deny that free solo climbing is cool looking. I can’t sit here and pretend I wasn’t riveted with car wreck fascination over Alex’s climb, even as I knew he had survived it. Much like Nascar, we pretend that this is about the remarkable challenge but we secretly, darkly, are watching for something horrible that might happen.
Do I recommend Free Solo? Yes, it’s undeniably compelling even as it is uncomfortably uncritical of how it glorifies an activity that will get more than a few people killed. Free Solo will inspire someone to want to try what Alex did. You could say this about a number of different movies but there is something more disquieting about Free Solo and how it appears to invite new daredevils to be the next Alex by making him a hero just for not falling to his death.
The lengthy segment of Free Solo in which Alex Honnold is making his climb to the top of El Capitan is among the most exciting, unnerving and compelling scenes in any movie in 2018. There are very few words, just grunts and brief sounds updating the crew on where Alex is on the mountain. The crew is just as transfixed as we are and while the silence was certainly a dramatic choice, it was also because they are as absorbed in this sight as we are. These scenes are why I can’t dislike Free Solo even as I am uncomfortable with it.
If you had told me there would be a sequel to Mary Poppins and that I would enjoy it even more than the version I grew up singing along to, a week ago I would have told you that you were crazy. But now, well, now I have seen it for myself and, indeed, it’s true, I enjoyed Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda even more than I enjoyed the original. That’s high praise as I used to pretend I was Dick Van Dyke and sing along with the songs in that movie when I was 7 or 8 years old. Mary Poppins Returns had to overcome a lot of nostalgia.
Mary Poppins Returns is a direct sequel to the 1964 Disney original. It’s not a remake, it’s not re-imagining, it’s a sequel featuring the original characters played by new actors. Emily Blunt takes up the role that Julie Andrews made famous as Mary Poppins, a nanny who can fly. In the original movie, Mary came to help the Banks children, Michael and Jane cope with their fun-hating father and flighty mum.
Twenty years have passed between the original and the sequel and Michael (Ben Whishaw) is all grown up with his own three children. Jane (Emily Mortimer) has inherited her mother’s activist spirit which has left her without much of a social life. Recently, Michael’s wife passed away and it has thrown his life and the lives of his children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), into chaos. So much chaos in fact, they may lose their home unless they can find their grandfather’s long ago shares in Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where Michael now works as a teller.
Into this maelstrom comes Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), arriving, as she does, on the end of a kite being flown by Georgie. Mary Poppins sensed trouble when the kids, rather than just being kids were beginning to act like adults. Mary Poppins immediately sets about giving the children childlike adventures which include a trip under the sea via their bathtub and some magic bubbles and a lovely cartoon carriage ride inside a cracked old bowl that their mother gave them.
The cartoon carriage ride is the most inspired part of Mary Poppins Returns. It recalls, of course, the legendary dancing penguins, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious performance from the original, with a penguin cameo no less. Herein, Blunt performs the big showstopper of Mary Poppins returns alongside Lin Manuel Miranda who plays Jack, ostensibly the Bert of this sequel. The song “A Cover is Not the Book” is completely delightful a rollicking and slightly risque tune that wonderfully combines animation and live action even more seamlessly than the original.
The best song in Mary Poppins Returns however, is the one that is likely going to make you cry. It made me wipe away a tear. The song is called “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and it’s an emotional piece that gets at the heart of grief and loss and parental love. Relatively easy targets for a tear jerker but wait till you hear Emily Blunt sing it before you get cynical. Blunt’s beautiful voice soars and the kids’ back-up on the song hits right at the heart.
Mary Poppins Returns was directed by Rob Marshall and marks a return to form for the director who was last scene torturing the movie musical genre with his unbearable Broadway adaptation, Into the Woods. Marshall hasn’t directed anything nearly as good as Mary Poppins Returns since he won an Academy Award for adapting Chicago to the big screen in 2003. He’s helped by having much better music here than he did in Into the Woods. Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman have truly hit it out the park with not one bad song in the movie.
I wasn’t expecting much from Mary Poppins Returns. I was kind of expecting the film to fall on its face while rehashing the original. Instead, what we get is a gleefully fun romp that recalls the spirit of the original movie and, in many ways, improves on the original. Emily Blunt is fantastic, Lin Manuel Miranda is lively and energetic and the music is spectacular. Have no hesitation, Mary Poppins Returns is everything you could want from a Mary Poppins sequel and so much more
Vox Lux is rarely the movie you think it is going to be. The plot indicates something arty and pretentious about the nature of pop stardom but the reality is something far more thoughtful and indelible. Writer-director Brady Corbet frames his pop music diva, played by both Raffey Cassidy and then by Natalie Portman, as the living embodiment of modern American culture.
I get that that is a big notion but I feel the film pulled off really well. The single named character Celeste is a pretty strong metaphor for our times. Her recent, relatively young history is dotted with a tragic school shooting followed by a rocket ship to fame. She’s drug addled, possibly alcoholic, unstable, a single mother, and perhaps the best endorsement imaginable for mood elevating drugs. If that doesn’t craft a picture of America in the 2000’s, I don’t know what does.
Celeste is basically a walking reality show with all of the cameras on her all the time and her fame obscuring her sense of any reality. Then there is the violence. In a prologue set in 1999, not so subtly the same year as the Columbine shooting, Celeste was the victim of a school shooter. While most of her classmates were killed, Celeste survived, though with a bullet permanently lodged near her spine.
Her first act after leaving the hospital is to play a song on national television next to her talented sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin), the living embodiment of survivor’s guilt whose permanently attached herself to her sister’s side. Ellie was supposed to have been at school that day but she was home sick. For the next 20 years Ellie will be constantly at her sister’s side, even as much of that time she becomes her sister’s victim.
Celeste has quite a temper and an attitude that you are not expecting. Portman lays on a thick Long Island accent and it really works to give the character a unique dimension. As a teenager, the character barely spoke above a whisper and with a halting and singular tone. Portman mirrors the halting tone but the voice is louder, harsher and weathered from years of smoking and a brutal touring schedule.
No joke, you could discern a life’s journey from the way Natalie Portman modulates her voice and accent in Vox Lux. It’s an uncanny performance and one most actors could not pull off on their best day. Portman is electric in this role and backed up by the music of Sia, she pulls off pop super diva in a big way. I bought into Celeste the moment Portman stepped into the role, in the second act and by the time we reach the film’s concert climax I lost track of the star and was watching pop goddess on stage.
Is the music good? That depends on your taste but that is entirely beyond the point. The point here is the presentation in all of its gaudy excess. I’ve never understood what exactly pop stars in concert are going for with these bizarre, other-worldly, stage antics but Vox Lux makes a unique case for how they come to be. At a certain point, performing the same songs, the same way, for months and years becomes stale and slapping on a new coat of paint with bizarre costumes and choreography is the only way to beat the tedium.
The film doesn’t make the statement quite as bluntly as I just did but the message is clear. Even with the updated on stage presentation the stiffness of the performance comes through as if Celeste were performing by rote, mimicking in a way our own performance, our daily routines that we’ve got down to a predictable science. There is a deathlessness to the performance that comes through in Portman’s eyes, this has become so second nature for her that she could do it in her sleep and yet they still cheer.
That’s not to indicate that the film has any opinions of Celeste or the kinds of people who flock to her brand of brainless entertainment. The film makes a strong case for why anyone would want to turn their brain off and just be entertained by the shiny lights and propulsive beats. The faux empowerment lyrics and empty love songs are a panacea for the audience and the performer who’d also like to just forget the world for awhile.
Vox Lux is a giant bullseye of a metaphor for our modern culture. Unstable, violent, unpredictable, obsessed with fame and money, gaudy and eccentric. The movie is a rather ingenious microcosm of our current state of affairs. That Vox Lux is not some kind of bloated, monstrous, obsessed with itself, mess of a movie is quite a testament to the talent of star Natalie Portman and writer-director Brady Corbet who’s made one heck of a great feature directorial debut.
Support the Girls stars the brilliant Regina Hall as Lisa, the fed up manager of a Hooters-esque sports bar in some nameless California strip mall. Lisa has played den mother to a core group of waitresses for a few years now, including Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), among others. Lately, Lisa has grown fully weary of the place where she works. The pay isn’t great, the boss, played by James LeGros, is a jerk and even her girls are becoming a bit of a pain.
On this day that we are watching unfold in Support the Girls things have begun in a most trying fashion. Krista (A.J Michalka) has dumped her boyfriend and is having a serious legal problem and no money to help her get out of trouble. She’s going to stay at Lisa’s house while Lisa figures out a way to help her. Krista will be at Lisa’s alongside Lisa’s husband, who has recently lost his job and has become shiftless and depressed.
When Lisa arrives at the restaurant she finds the place has been broken into and the thief is trapped in the ceiling. In climbing into the ceiling, the thief has taken out the cable so now she has a sports bar with no sports and a big fight tonight that is supposed to bring in a big crowd. At the very least, Lisa does get an idea to help Krista, she’s going to do a charity car wash with the help of a group of eager young applicants who showed up for job interviews that Lisa forgot about.
The car wash will need to come off without her boss, Cubby (LeGros) finding out about, meaning no social media push. She also needs to come up with a fake charity because if people know it’s just for some girls legal defense they may not be sympathetic. The problems continue to mount both big and small including Maci spending too much time with an old man customer and Danyelle lacking child care and thus bringing her son to work with her.
None of these situations that Lisa is dealing with are particularly funny in and of themselves but as they add up, one after another after another, there is a compelling narrative that always keeps your attention. Regina Hall is a wonderful actress, endlessly sympathetic and when she’s fed up, you feel it and you can’t help but be in that moment with her. Her bickering with LeGros’ Cubby has a nasty quality to it with edge that tells you perhaps she’s going to be fired at any moment.
That sparky kind of tension is perhaps the real driving force of Support the Girls. Throughout the movie these types of sparky if not flat out, fiery exchanges bubble up and kick the plot forward. Orange is the New Black star Lea DeLaria is in the movie as a tough talking customer who feels a deep protectiveness toward the girls and isn’t afraid to throw down if someone is getting out of line. Delaria keeps amping up tensions in each of her scenes and she is incredibly fun to watch.
Haley Lu Richardson is a complete doll as the endlessly chipper Maci. Maci is the party starter, the sexy chick who is both putting on an act and living that act. Credit to Richardson, and to screenwriter and director Andrew Bujalski, for never settling on Maci’s stereotypical qualities. She takes the flirting with the old man customer story to a place of genuine, unexpected pathos in a scene that really made me smile.
Smiles are the par for the course of Support the Girls. The film isn’t big on drama or comedy. It’s a slice of Life movie that consistently engages via smart and charming characters and lead performance by Regina Hall that you can’t resist rooting for. The film isn’t perfect but it will make you happy for the most part. Support the Girls achieves very modest goals of being engaging and charming if not deeply artful, moving or laugh out loud hilarious.
The Favourite stars Rachel Weisz as Lady Marlborough, aka Sara Churchill, the best friend of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Lady Marlborough was Queen Anne’s right hand during her reign until the two had a falling out over Lady Marlborough’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who arrived in the kingdom penniless and insinuates herself into the Queen’s good graces. Lady Marlborough is initially kind but wary of Abigail but soon the rivalry grows into a mutual disdain.
What director Yorgos Lanthimos does so brilliantly with this story is not merely allow his characters to be catty or stereotypical. Lady Marlborough appears especially intelligent and politically adept. Abigail is conniving and cunning but it comes from a well-honed instinct for survival and not some simplified notion of how women act toward other women. Abigail has known no other way of life than survival, having grown up with a father who once lost her in a card game.
Tiny little nasty details punctuate numerous scenes in The Favourite and the delight with which these brilliant actresses deliver these points, such as the card game anecdote, is glorious. Stone and Weisz relish the nastiness they share with one another as they battle for the Queen’s affections, quite literally, as both women find their way into the salacious Queen’s bed, one because she genuinely cares and the other because it is advantageous. You can watch and find out which.
Nicholas Hoult rounds out the main cast as Robert Harley the 1st Earl of Oxford. He’s in a war of wits with Lady Marlborough over the ongoing war with France and how his landed gentry are paying for the war while the city-dwelling shopkeeps benefit from providing supplies via contract. There is a touch of modern politics to the power plays between Marlborough and Hartley and Weisz and Hoult have tremendous fun biting back and forth.
Olivia Colman portrays Queen Anne as a very sad and often ill woman. Her affinity for rabbits has a sad backstory that informs the film’s stunning ending, one of the most fascinating endings of the year undoubtedly. Throughout the film Colman’s Anne is a powerfully weak presence, pushed hither and yon by whichever powerful personality is leading the way at that moment. She seeks only pleasure until even her greatest pleasures lack any authentic joy.
For director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is the most mainstream movie he’s made in his relatively young career. His American features, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer have been so deliberately esoteric that it is some kind of wonder that he was allowed to make them. The Lobster is literally about a man’s journey toward potentially being turned into a lobster if he can’t find love. As for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, as much as I found it riveting, it’s more of an exercise in style than it is the kind of thriller a movie studio would want you to believe it to be.
The Favourite is therefore easily more mainstream just by virtue of not being deliberately off-putting. That plus who doesn’t love a good bit of palace intrigue. The Favourite follows in the footsteps of films like Elizabeth or Marie Antoinette or any other movie to do with the inner sanctum of royalty.
America may have left the Queen behind but we’ve remained fascinated by the history, mystery and especially the dysfunction behind the scenes of royalty since the day we left the monarchy behind.
The Favourite has all sorts of juicy, gossipy, details delivered with nasty glee by actresses who know just how to bite off a good insult or connive their way to another deliberate obfuscation of their rival. We love to hate characters like these while secretly delighting in their bad behavior because it’s so wonderfully entertaining. Weisz especially is playing a character of remarkable charisma who always speaks her mind and is always the smartest person in the room, until she gets a little too smart.
The Favourite is one of the smartest and most devilishly, darkly clever movies of the year. Right up until that ending I mentioned earlier which will divide audiences between those who admire how daring and artful it is and those who won’t quite know how to feel. The Favourite leaves you with a great deal to think about and not much of it is pleasant. It worked on me as a bleak grace note for a story with no winners, only survivors.
Ben is Back is a day in the life drama about a family dealing with one members drug addiction. It's about a mother and a son and the lifetime’s worth of trauma that can be inflicted in such short amounts of time because of drugs. Writer-Director Peter Hedges has trod upon this ground before with difficult relationships between parents and children with the wonderful Piece of April being a strong example of his talent.
Ben is Back stars Lucas Hedges as Ben and Julia Roberts as Ben’s mom, Holly. Ben has been in rehab for about three months and has much more time left there but he’s somehow arrived back home. The tension is immediate as Ben’s sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is alarmed to see him out of rehab. Holly, however, could not be happier to have him home. It’s Christmas and Holly is overjoyed to have her oldest son home, especially after he passes an at home drug test.
As excited as Holly is to have Ben home she nevertheless hides all of the prescription drugs and valuables. Ben has a history of having broken into the home in the past to steal things to sell for drugs. Holly’s husband, Neil (Courtney B. Vance) is suspicious and thinks Ben should go back to rehab. After some guilty feelings however, he relents to let Ben stay the night and attend a Christmas play that his younger siblings are in at church.
When the family gets back from church, they find the house has been broken into and their dog is gone. Ben knows who did it and wants to get him back. The film then follows him into a tour of his past misdeeds as he searches through his own history for the person who took the family dog. Mom chases after, concerned that the search could lead him back to drugs, a concern that grows deeper as the hours pass.
Ben is Back takes place over a single day, Christmas eve. The story is tightly contained and well told. Each of these actors is exceptionally well cast with Julia Roberts giving her all as the grieving, terrified mother. Lucas Hedges continues to be one of our most compelling young actors. He makes smart choices and here, working with his father, Peter Hedges, he delivers a deeply affecting performance.
Ben is Back is melodrama, to be sure, but it is solid and well meaning melodrama. As this day passes we can’t help but get caught up in the lives of these characters and the small signifiers of their lives together. I really loved the performance of Kathryn Newton whose mixture of fear and hope for her brother is palpable. Newton’s Ivy has the perspective that her mother lacks and she’s a terrific counterpoint to Vance’s character as well as she’s willing to give Ben more of a chance while reserving a good deal of suspicion and fear.
I have no experience with drugs personally. I have never used drugs or helped anyone obtain them. There is a reason for that: have you seen the places people go to get and use drugs? Honestly, crack houses and dirty cold riversides are the spots in Ben is Back along with a dangerous looking neighborhood and a very shady looking pawn shop. I can’t understand how anyone would want to go to places like these.
Ben is Back is certainly effective in setting, reminding us of the places that drugs can take even someone like Ben who had every advantage and still could not stay clean. The film doesn’t spend much time analyzing Ben, it’s more about observing Ben and his family and their dynamic and how this one day is unfolding. That tight focus works for the movie and the day in the life style is absorbing.
Ben is Back is being releases in time for the Academy Awards and you can sense that this has the aim of an awards drama. That said, Lucas Hedges is much more likely to get attention for his role as a young gay man forced into gay conversion therapy in Boy Erased than he is here. The Oscar hopes of Ben is Back likely fall on Roberts who hasn’t had this kind of spotlight on her since Eat, Pray, Love. It would come as no surprise to see her name called on nomination day.
I’m embarrassed to say that I am completely defeated by Suspiria. I have no idea what this movie is intending to say. I recognize that the filmmaking is lush and gorgeous and a few scenes in the movie are striking and memorable, but I cannot, for the life of me, find a point in among the fine filmmaking. Suspiria isn’t scary enough for full on horror, despite some high level gore, and it doesn’t appear to have much of a political message. So what the hell did I just watch?
Suspiria stars Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, a former Quaker turned wannabe dancer who has moved to Berlin to study under the famed Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Susie has done this on spec, she is not even guaranteed the chance to try out. The school year has already begun and their may not even be space. But, Susie takes the chance nevertheless and something in her dance strikes a chord so deep in Madame Blanc that Susie earns her way in.
Meanwhile, in a prologue, we’ve met Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a deeply troubled young girl who is visiting her psychiatrist, Dr Klemperer (also played by Tilda Swinton under heavy and convincing, old man makeup). The doctor believes that Patricia’s rants about witches at her dance school, the same one that Susie is to attend, are delusions. However, when Patricia goes missing, Dr Klemperer is forced to look at her delusions in a different manner.
Caught in the midst of all of this, the disappearance of Patricia and the arrival of Susie, is Sara (Mia Goth). Sara was Patricia’s closest friend and has been tasked by Madame Blanc with helping Susie get situated, in Patricia’s former room no less. Sara slowly becomes suspicious and her suspicions drive much of the plot in the second act or is it the 4th? The film is divided into multiple parts with a prologue and an epilogue and an epic length, nearly an hour longer than Dario Argento’s original Suspiria.
The style of Suspiria is top notch. The gorgeous deep focus cinematography of Call Me By Your Name cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes a few notes from Argento’s original, especially with the use of the color red, but has its own unique beauty in the remarkable angles and striking use of light and dark. I have no problems whatsoever with the technical side of director Luca Guadagnino’s production.
The issues in Suspiria arise when I attempt to bring the film into some kind of greater focus. I am trying to extract a point. One fellow critic I read said the decision to set the film in Berlin, the original was set in Freiburg, Germany, was intended to evoke the division of the city after World War 2 juxtaposed with the division of the self, i.e the public and the private, the duality at the heart of so many of us, the side we show others and the side we keep to ourselves.
I kind of see that but it doesn’t help me understand the films final act orgy of blood and dance. I genuinely have no clue what happened in the final act of the movie. I could describe it in full spoiler mode because I don’t know what I would be spoiling if anything. The final bloodsoaked scenes are striking but what they have to do with anything either in the story the film is telling in text or metaphorically in subtext.
I’m embarrassed because I am usually rather adept at sussing out metaphors and deeper meanings, it’s kind of my thing. If I can’t suss one directly, I can usually assign one but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what Suspiria is intended to say about women, sexuality, dance, or witches. Maybe it’s not intended to mean anything and is just an experiment in form. If that’s the case, it’s not very clear from the characters who seem to be striding toward some kind of point, even if I can’t seem to follow it. ]
Suspiria will be arriving in theaters nationwide soon and is very R-Rated for nudity, violence and bloodshed.