Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has pulled a Michael Haneke with his latest film, Gloria Bell. In 2007, Haneke, an Austrian filmmaker, made an English-language version of his 1997 movie Funny Games that was a shot for shot remake. Lelio is calling Gloria Bell a “reimagining” of his own 2013 hit Chilean-set movie, called Gloria. I’ve seen both versions, and while they aren’t as exactingly identical as Haneke’s films apparently are (I’ve only seen the 2007 version of Funny Games), it’s pretty damn close. A few lines of dialog have been changed, one minor character is swapped out for another, and obviously the actors have their own unique take on the material, but otherwise the two movies are strikingly similar. Where Haneke used both versions of Funny Games as a sadistic (arguably hypocritical) critique of mindless violence in the media, Lelio’s films are a warm, ultimately soaring character study of one woman.
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This is a new series I’m dubbing 100 Essential Films. Last year a friend gave me a really cool gift. It’s a scratch-off poster featuring 100 movies that someone (whoever put the poster together) considers essential viewing. We all know how these kinds of lists work: they’re extremely subjective. But, I have the poster, and it’s a good set of films. I figured, why not write a little about each one as I watch them and (literally) scratch them off the list? There are a lot I’ve never seen, and a fair amount that I have. This will be a great way to catch up with the former, as well as a good way to revisit and get on record with the latter.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is turning 15 this year. On a whim, I picked it up at the library recently along with The Darjeeling Limited. Life Aquatic was a re-watch and Darjeeling was one of Wes Anderson’s films that I was finally getting around to seeing for the first time. Click the link for something new I’m trying; it’s a feature I’m calling Revisited, where I’m going on the record with a movie I’ve seen before but never written about.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is for everybody out there who feels like a complete fraud. The movie is based on writer and literary forger Lee Israel’s confessional memoir. When her career as an author of celebrity biographies stalled due to lack of critical or commercial success, Israel got desperate. She spent a year in the early 1990s forging letters by dead celebrities like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and selling them to autograph brokers for hundreds of dollars each. The film is ostensibly about Israel successfully flimflamming the entire literary document community before the FBI caught onto her. But it’s also an examination of her sense of identity being stripped away when what she’s built it on – her work as a writer – is destroyed because both her colleagues and the public tell her she’s no good at it.
If you couldn’t tell from the opening sentence of this review, I count myself as one of those people who feels like a fraud.
Toward the end of A Star is Born, one character describes a favorite bit of wisdom about music from Jackson Maine, one of the two central figures of the movie. Jackson – Jack to his friends – loves to say that there are only 12 notes between any octave. “Twelve notes and then the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All that the artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”
It might have been a strategic move to include this observation in the movie considering this is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. That’s four versions of A Star is Born – six if you include the 2013 Bollywood film Aashiqui 2, which is also based on the ’37 film, and a 1932 movie called What Price Hollywood?, which is essentially the same story. This version of A Star is Born is how Bradley Cooper sees the notes. He offers a fresh, energetic take. I was in from the very start, when we see Jack play one of his songs in front of a crowd of thousands of cheering fans.
We all have that acquaintance, friend, or family member who use their Facebook profile solely to antagonize members of their social circle whom they consider their political enemies. These are almost always people who would never do the same thing in a face to face setting. They like to “start shit,” but from the safety of their phone. These people are a shade different from what are popularly known as internet trolls, because they believe in the opinions they’re expressing, so it’s not 100% about getting under their target’s skin. It’s only 75% about that. Vice, Adam McKay’s inflammatory, obnoxious biopic about Dick Cheney, arguably the most destructive vice president in American history, is the cinematic equivalent of these true-believer assholes.
There’s been plenty of digital ink already spilled about Green Book being a White Savior Film. While I’ll also spill a bit of my own on the topic, there isn’t much I can add. For me – an average white dude who’s seen his fair share of movies – the most glaring fault about the picture, a dramedy dealing with race relations in the Jim Crow era, is the paint-by-numbers feeling of it all. This is a movie that strives to hit every standard beat in the uplifting “inspired by a true story” template. As an exercise in mediocrity that serves up something we’ve all seen dozens of times before, Green Book is an unparalleled success. It’s utterly predicable and is the kind of movie that would have felt fresh had it been made 20 or 30 years ago. Still, for all it’s flaws, Green Book isn’t entirely without its charms. In addition to a superb turn from actor Mahershala Ali, the movie does provide some inspiring moments and a message about race that plenty of people still haven’t absorbed.
Barry Jenkins displayed a deep emotional intelligence and sensitivity with his breakout film Moonlight, which won a raft of awards after its release. In his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, the director delivers another stunning drama about the black experience in America. It’s brimming with love, fear, heartache, and, ultimately, hope. Jenkins is a preeminent humanist filmmaker; he treats his characters with a great deal of empathy and dignity. He is also a singular film artist. If Beale Street Could Talk, like Moonlight, contains spectacularly gorgeous images. It is a triumph in American cinema.
Cold War is my first experience with the work of director Paweł Pawlikowski. I need to see Ida, his film about a woman set to take her vows as a nun in early 1960s Poland, but I haven’t had time to catch up with it yet. After watching Cold War, I’ll be sure to make the time. His new picture is a painfully mournful tale of two star-crossed lovers whose own personalities and the realities of the world around them conspire to make the match an ill-advised one. Still, their passion burns bright, even when they are separated from each other for years.
With Leave No Trace, her first narrative feature film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik continues to focus on characters on the fringes of society. Granik is a filmmaker whose work is steeped in social realism. Winter’s Bone chronicled crushing poverty and the devastating effects of methamphetamine use in the rural Ozarks. In Leave No Trace, the focus is a veteran struggling with PTSD who is also trying to care for and raise his teenage daughter. Granik and her writing partner, Anne Rosellini, adapted Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment for their film. The picture is a meditation on familial love, mental illness, and even the personal sacrifices we all make to be members of society. Granik imbues the film with a great deal of empathy, and her film features two of the best performances of 2018; one from a newcomer who shows talent beyond her years, and the other from an experienced actor turning in the best, most nuanced work of his career.
It’s probably ridiculous for me to describe the Chicago-set crime thriller Widows as authentic. That’s not due to any fault with the movie. In fact, it’s nothing to do with the movie at all. It’s because I’ve lived almost 90% of my life in Texas. While I’ve done my fair share of traveling, I have not so much as set foot in the state of Illinois, let alone Chicago (a situation I’m anxious to rectify). Widows is as much about that city as it is anything else. It’s an incredibly authentic rendering of the Chicago of my imagination, which I’ve conjured through pop culture representations, journalism and non-fiction works, and basic cultural osmosis.
The movie weaves together fundamental Chicago touchstones into a dense and layered story: corrupt machine politics, a deadly criminal underworld, uneasy racial tensions. Meanwhile, the heist at the center of the movie is as taught and suspenseful as anything you’ll see on the screen this year.
Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.
While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
It appears that the opioid crisis has finally reached far enough beyond fly-over country for Hollywood to notice it and feature it as the social problem of the moment. Two awards season hopefuls showcase not just drug addiction, but the kind of drug addiction that has been making headlines for almost a decade now. Both Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back focus on men in their early 20s who are opioid addicts and how their parents struggle to help them break free of the addiction.
I have no opinion yet on Ben is Back, because I haven’t seen it as of this writing (although the screener is sitting on my desk in the “to watch” pile) but looking at the cast and a brief plot synopsis, I’m willing to venture a guess that it shares the same problem Beautiful Boy has. While the picture achieves what it sets out to do, Beautiful Boy is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the easy way of exploring the devastating opioid epidemic.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has synthesized the best elements of his career to date for his latest film Roma, a touching, ethereal masterpiece. The subject matter is semi-autobiographical, like elements from his breakout hit Y Tu Mamá También. Just like his visually stunning work in Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón’s absolute mastery of the cinematic techniques of camera movement and framing are also on display in this film. What sets Roma apart, though, is its lyrical, contemplative mode of storytelling. Those elements are present even in Cuarón’s most anxiety-inducing picture, Gravity, but the director is exploring them more fully here. Roma is emotionally complex and mature; it’s a beautiful film, both visually and thematically.
A crucial part to the formula of a biopic about a popular entertainer is giving the audience plenty of moments of foreshadowing in which they can knowingly smile and nod their head to what’s coming. Freddie playing the first ten notes of Bohemian Rhapsody on a piano for his girlfriend early in the movie is a prime example of this. The girlfriend, Mary, tells Freddie she likes the music, and he responds, “I think it has potential.” Yes, Freddie, yes it does have potential, we are meant to think as we share a collective hushed chuckle. The picture is full to bursting with moments like this.
Director Damien Chazelle is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. The protagonists of his films make great sacrifices to achieve their goals. In Whiplash, Andrew Neiman will forsake friends and family, spending his every free moment to become a better jazz drummer. In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia are willing to let their relationship crumble while they chase their respective dreams of becoming a successful musician and actor. In First Man, Chazelle turns his perfection obsessed gaze to a real-life figure. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and the rest of the people involved in the Apollo space program had one goal: to set foot on the moon. Several people gave their lives in the effort to achieve this goal.
Screenwriter Josh Singer is also no stranger to projects featuring characters who are intensely focused on their work. Singer co-wrote both Spotlight and The Post, and he served several years as a writer on the television series The West Wing. Singer’s attention to technical detail and Chazelle’s emotionally stirring, at times lyrical, depiction of Armstrong work in tandem to produce a compelling picture. It is one, however, that never quite gives us a satisfying view into Armstrong’s inner turmoil.
Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Tanisha Anderson. These are just a few of the black people whom police officers have killed in the last few years. The list goes on and on. The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Say Their Names campaign has focused attention on myriad issues surrounding state oppression in the black community. One aspect of the black experience in particular received intensive media attention a few years ago: The Talk. That’s the lecture many black parents give their children about what to do during an encounter with the police. Keep your hands visible at all times. No sudden movements. Remain polite and respectful. The goal of strategies like these that black parents impart during The Talk is to make sure their children walk away from interactions with the police alive.
The Hate U Give, a powerful film about race, justice, and so much more, starts with The Talk. It sets a serious and sober tone that director George Tillman, Jr. masterfully sustains as he adds wonderful touches of humor and humanity to a story of righteous anger and, ultimately, hope.
I have to wonder if Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s luminous music biopic about little-known country music singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, would have been as transfixing if Hawke hadn’t focused so much on romanticizing poverty. This is Hawke’s third feature film directorial effort. Telling the Outlaw Country musician’s story became a passion project for the Texas-born actor. Foley’s story is one of crushing deprivation, self-sabotage, and ends in the singer’s tragic death at the young age of 39 (don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler; we learn about Foley’s death in the first ten minutes of the picture).
Our society exalts the idea of the starving/suffering artist, and Hawke taps into that with Blaze. Foley was a man who was seemingly incapable of doing anything but making music, regardless of whether he could make a living at it. He was also good at bestowing back-country philosophy on those around him, earning him the nickname Duct Tape Messiah. I think we all know how little money there is in being contemplative about life and our place in the universe.
If there is such a thing as finding the perfect balance between comedy and drama when it comes to portraying as serious a subject as gay reparative therapy, director Desiree Akhavan has done it with The Miseducation of Cameron Post. She and her co-screenwriter, Cecilia Frugiuele, with the help of the cast and crew, have crafted a picture that feels rich and authentic. The film doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of what goes on at “pray away the gay” camps. These controversial (to put it charitably) religious-based “conversion therapy” programs have damaged countless lives. States like California have taken steps in recent months to ban the practice, so far to mixed results.
What Akhavan has done with Cameron Post is to mine the smallest moments of levity from the resilience of the kids whose parents or guardians force them into these camps. The movie is wholly concerned with exploring the complicated inner turmoil that comes with having characteristics that some people in society demonize. On that front, the movie is a resounding success.
It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.