Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

2018 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition that comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four, and and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).
The Favourite: The Favourite makes a strong addition to the genre of period films with wit and ribaldry, with the added novelty of a trio of scheming women at its core. It's the early 18th century, and Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman) faces war abroad and great personal tragedy – her husband has died, she's had a number of miscarriages and stillbirths, and none of her children have survived, either. (She's obtained rabbits she's named after them.) She's extremely temperamental, generous and charming one moment and savage and demanding the next. Her health is poor and doesn't help her mood any; at times, she's in agony and can't even walk. In this era, parliament wields increasing authority, but the Queen is still a powerful and influential figure. Anne's best friend and confidant is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who can be supportive but also quite the bully, although she would claim in Anne's best interest. Along comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a distant relative of Sarah's who's fallen on hard times and wants to improve her state. Sarah is initially helpful to Abigail until she starts shaping up as a rival for Anne's favours.

Most of the film centers on Sarah and Abigail's machinations and counter-machinations, all centered on Anne. The three female leads are all fantastic; they're often entertainingly savage-within-gentility. (We're also sympathetic to all of them at points.) Amusingly, the young men in the film, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), wear more makeup and are often more sartorially extravagant than the women. I had only a few complaints. There's an extravagant dance done for comic effect that's egregiously not period. Director Yorgos Lanthimos gets good performances, but goes overboard on wide-angle lenses and similarly odd shots that seem a bit self-indulgent and distracting. The film gets darker and nastier near the end, seemingly without good reason. Still, this is a very entertaining movie for audiences who appreciate female leads, social maneuvering and cutting dialogue. Weisz hasn't had a role this good in years, and she digs into it with relish. Stone likewise is having a blast; Abigail is more likeable than Sarah at first, but she has a vicious side. Coleman, meanwhile, is magnificent and multilayered as Queen Anne, by turns funny, pitiable and a terror. (Sarah Churchill was the ancestor of Winston, and the film is loosely based on her memoirs.)

The Sisters Brothers: Westerns, let alone good westerns, are rare these days, so The Sisters Brothers makes welcome fare. It features multiple comic moments, but it's primarily a drama, with some disturbing scenes of violence and injury. Brothers Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are skilled gunfighters and tough guys who work for a local bigwig known as "the Commodore" (Rutger Hauer). To paraphrase Wolverine, they're good at what they do, but what they do isn't very nice. Their big new assignment is to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who supposedly has stolen from the Commodore. Also on the case for the Commodore is John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective who fancies himself a civilized man, and takes a liking to Warm despite his job. Warm tells Morris he's invented a chemical process for finding gold, which could be lucrative, and that the Sisters brothers will torture him to get it. Morris is left in a moral quandary. Meanwhile, the Sisters brothers are on their trail, and face a series of misadventures, from dangerous fauna to human beings who want to kill them.

The core of the film is the relationship between Eli and Charlie, and Reilly and Phoenix are excellent together. The brothers bicker and fight occasionally, but they're unfailingly loyal to each other underneath it all. Eli, the older brother, is the more mature one and has a sentimental side; Charlie is more hotheaded and tends to drink too much. They're presented as people with a horrific childhood who became villains by necessity, not choice; Eli chafes against the idea that it's their destiny. The plot is thankfully not always predictable but some developments are memorably grisly. The film is based on the novel of the same name and was made by Reilly's production company; he's one of the listed producers. Director Jacques Audiard, as one might guess by the name, is French (he directed the excellent film Un Prophète, the fifth film reviewed here) and does a nice job in a traditionally American genre. (Not that we should ever forget Sergio Leone.)

Vice:Vice lacks the energy and pacing of Adam McKay's wonderful previous effort, The Big Short (reviewed here), but it's original, often daring and has a great cast. It's an unconventional biopic about Richard "Dick" Cheney, who rose to be the most powerful Vice President of the United States in history. Dick Cheney is finely played by Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable in impressive prosthetics. The always-good Amy Adams plays ambitious Lynne Cheney, his wife (which is much better than Lynne Cheney deserves). Sam Rockwell delivers a nice comic turn as George W. Bush and Steve Carell is surprisingly good as Donald Rumsfeld; he plays the role straight, but his comic chops help him capture the eccentricities of the man. Alison Pill is another standout as Mary Cheney, whose personal life makes for interesting conflicts within her conservative family as the Cheneys claw their way to power.

McKay faces a few challenges and I think makes one significant unforced error. First, Cheney is one of the most secretive men in history, so good accounts of him are scarce. (The opening titles acknowledge precisely this.) Second, he's a powerful but quiet man, which isn't the most conducive dynamic for the lead subject of a feature film. McKay chose an inherently difficult subject. Meanwhile, McKay picked Jesse Plemons to be his main narrator, but Plemons is not a strong voice actor. His diction isn't great, nor is his inflection work, but the main problem is he talks too slowly and sluggishly, robbing the opening of the energy and verve that Ryan Gosling brought to The Big Short. (I kept on wishing I could recast the part.)

McKay does make a number of bold decisions beyond his casting, though, which pay off beautifully in several inspired and memorable scenes: a high-class restaurant fantasy scene where Alfred Molina plays a waiter offering various abuses of power to key Bush administration officials; an intimate scene between Dick and Lynne where they both deliver Shakespeare-like dialogue (think Macbeth rewritten for the Cheneys), and at least one alternative reality fake-out (that had me laughing). Conventional biopics and filmmakers would never make these choices, but McKay, with his comedic background, realizes the absurdist approach sometimes cuts closest to the truth. (I do think the very end, while narratively strong, gives Dick Cheney far too much credit, though.)

I wanted to love this film and only liked it. But I appreciate its ambition, and I'd much rather see McKay swing for the fences and occasionally miss than watch standard, predictable Hollywood fare. Vice is not as good as The Big Short, unfortunately, but that's a high bar. And unless you hate the subject matter, there's plenty of genuinely excellent, original work inVice to make it worth a look.

(If you'd like to know about Cheney, I'd particularly recommend the superb book Angler by Barton Gellman and the 2007 Frontline episode, "Cheney's Law.")

Widows: In Chicago, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is shocked to learn that her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) has been killed during a heist along with the rest of his crew. Moreover, Harry stole two million dollars from local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who threatens Veronica to come up with the money somehow. It's Chicago, and Manning is running for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a legacy candidate whose family dynasty over the district could fail due to redistricting. Jack has a contentious relationship with his strong-willed father, Tom (Robert Duvall), a former politician who still wields considerable influence and expects others to obey. Veronica is led to a notebook of Harry's that details a big heist (five million). In desperation, she reaches out to other widows from Harry's crew, notably Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), and pitches them on the idea of pulling off the job themselves.

This is an unusual heist film in that the heist, while gripping, comes in the last act and is secondary: most of the film is a drama, dealing with peril, but also with grief. Veronica in particular not only misses her husband but begins to question how well she really knew him. All of the main characters are struggling internally as well as externally. Alice decides to try working as an escort to pay the bills, but is shamed by the other women for doing so. Jack doesn't much like the family business in politics and seems to be fairly self-loathing as well, but he still wants to win, and is competitive and jealous. Rodriguez doesn't have that much range, but this is a good role for her; she's convincing as a tough gal (as in Cynthia Erivo as Belle). Davis, Farrell and Debecki are the standout performers in a strong cast. Director Steve McQueen based Widows on a 1980s BBC series written by Lynda La Plante, who consulted with McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to explain character motivations and other details. 2018 saw two all-female heist films, Widows and Ocean's Eight (reviewed below), making for an interesting contrast. Ocean's Eight is a fun Hollywood heist, but I found Widows far more intriguing because of its realism and the character depth. A few more points in the…

Green Book: Taken on its own merits, Green Book is a good movie, if a throwback with significant blind spots. It should not have won Best Picture or even been nominated and was not built to sustain that scrutiny. First, the movie itself. It tells the real-life story of black classical/jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who decides to tour the South with his trio in the early 1960s. He hires a white driver to do so, Italian-American Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who goes by "Tony Lip." The movie's title refers to the The Negro Motorist Green Book, which advised black travelers about safe places to stay and locations to avoid when traveling, especially important information in the South, where Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Tony is given a copy by Don Shirley's manager and had no idea such a thing existed. Tony works as a bouncer and runs low-level scams; he's a good fighter, cunning, but also has a racist streak. He's not crazy about working for a black man, but he needs the money. His wife Delores (Linda Cardellini) is not happy that Tony might miss Christmas.

The core of the movie is an odd couple, road trip, drama-comedy; Shirley is intelligent, cultured, refined and reserved, whereas Tony is outgoing and a lout, often gleefully so. Director and cowriter Peter Farrelly is best known for comedy, and he's at his best in these scenes. Ali and Mortensen have great chemistry, and all their scenes have energy. As Don Shirley, Ali shows some range by playing a character far different from his Oscar-winning turn in Moonlight; he makes Shirley very precise and deliberate, a man who both has a large vocabulary and chooses his words carefully. Mortensen, always versatile, performs an astounding transformation; he could have stepped right off the set of The Sopranos. Mortensen impressively goes so deep his performance is utterly convincing and never reads as caricature. Although Tony initially takes the gig for money, he sees how Don Shirley is ill-treated and becomes increasingly protective and sympathetic. Shirley also helps Tony write letters home to Delores, in a little Cyrano action, making Tony appear much more eloquent and romantic. The two men gradually move beyond a business relationship and become friends of a sort. The scenes of racism probably won't be unsurprising to seasoned audiences, but are fairly effective for showing Shirley trying to maintain his dignity and Tony's growing sense of injustice.

Now for the flaws and controversies: I had to wonder why the film was being told from Tony's point of view and not Don Shirley's. It turns out the lead screenwriter was Nick Vallelonga, Tony's son, so the screenplay was based on Tony's account of the trip. Nick also interviewed Don Shirley, who reportedly asked him not to make the film while he was still alive (Shirley died in 2013) and not to contact anyone else in his family; Nick Vallelonga and Peter Farrelly did work with Shirley's estate. Shirley's family sharply criticized the film, particularly its suggestion that Don Shirley was estranged from the rest of his family. However, they also claimed that Don Shirley and Tony were not friends and had solely an employer-employee relationship, which is contradicted by Shirley himself in a documentary interview. In Nick Vallelonga's account, he acceded to Don Shirley's wishes. The best article I've found to date about the controversies is this Vanity Fair one. It includes discussion of the fried chicken scene, which has made some audiences cringe, but made sense to Kappeyne van de Coppello, who manages Shirley's estate. (I don't buy that Shirley wasn't familiar with Aretha Franklin and other black popular music of the day, though.) Meanwhile, some of the most extraordinary scenes actually happened, such as a jailhouse call. (Although I think he's too generous, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a thoughtful piece defending the film and artistic license.)

I'd suggest that Green Book has more merit than its harshest critics would allow but still possesses significant problems and could have been a stronger movie. Mahershala Ali did give feedback on the script, particularly on Don Shirley's responses in several scenes to give him more agency, dignity, and self-worth; based on what I've read, Ali definitely made the script better. It's to Farrelly's credit that he actively solicited that feedback and listened to it. But I still think this movie would have better with at least one black screenwriter on the team and probably a black director. (Having Octavia Spencer as an executive producer surely helped, but it wasn't enough.) The Green Book of the title seldom comes into play. The movie might serve as a good introduction to the history of Jim Crow laws to younger white audiences, but better documentaries and narrative films exist for more sophisticated audiences. As I wrote in the year-in-review post, four of the Best Picture nominees dealt with race pretty prominently: Roma, BlackkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book. Even superhero movie Black Panther deals with race more incisively than Green Book, a throwback film that places racism safely in the past and centers on a white protagonist learning a valuable lesson. It's a feel-good movie, and Ali and Mortensen are so good I still think it's worth watching, but it shouldn't have won best picture. (Last tidbit: NPR has a good piece on Kris Bowers, who played most of Shirley's piano parts in the movie, and the visual effects used to make it all work.)

BlackkKlansman: Loosely based on a true story, BlackkKlansman tells the tale of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel's son), who in the 1970s becomes the first black police officer hired by Colorado Springs. Not all of his fellow officers are welcoming, and some are openly racist. He's granted a request to do undercover work, and winds up assigned to attend a rally by black activist Kwame Ture (previously known as Stokely Carmichael). He's intrigued and attracted to Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of a local black student union, no big fan of cops or the establishment. Stallworth next investigates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and decides to call them, pretending to be white over the phone. To handle in-person meetings, he recruits a fellow officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who's Jewish. Some of the scenes are pretty funny, especially when Stallworth has then-Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) confiding to him over the phone about their clear superiority as whites. Other scenes bristle with menace, particularly those with Zimmerman meeting with the local klansman. A few members seem inept, but Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) is legitimately intimidating and suspects something fishy. The stakes increase as Duke plans to come to town and the KKK seem to be planning an attack.

Some of the scenes strain credulity. Stallworth makes a big pitch to his boss about being able to talk "white" and demonstrates this in his first call to the Klan, but then doesn't always keep it up for all his subsequent phone conversations. He gives the Klan his real name and a police station number. (The real Stallworth wrote a letter instead, but did use his real name, so that part is true if nuts.) Zimmerman's baritone voice is markedly different from Stallworth's tenor, and although they explain this discrepancy to the Klan as the result of a cold, their cadences are way off, too. Stallworth and Zimmerman have at least one scene where they're coordinating stories, but there's not nearly enough of them trying to match voices; it feels like writer-director Spike Lee just didn't try very hard to convince us of a central aspect of the con. The threat posed by the KKK in Colorado also seems significantly inflated for dramatic effect.

I like Spike Lee's work, and generally find it interesting even when I don't think it's entirely successful, but he also has a tendency for odd, bad or self-indulgent choices that can detract from the whole. He includes his very noticeable voice shouting in the Kwame Ture rally, for example. The score is often heavy-handed, overpowering and distracting (a trend in his films). As I wrote in the year-in-review post, I thought BlackkKlansman was decent, with a few excellent scenes, but if you know the Colorado KKK wasn't nearly as dangerous as depicted, the stakes feel much lower. The strongest scenes by far were the documentary footage used to end the movie, which Spike Lee choose to include but weren't written or directed by Spike Lee. They're genuinely powerful, but feel much more urgent than the story of a minor Klan chapter in the 70s, so their inclusion made me want to see a film about them instead – maybe a documentary instead of the narrative we'd just been offered. (The one strong throughline is seeing present-day David Duke. I should note, though, that some audiences felt the ending documentary footage strengthened what came before rather than making it suffer in comparison, so your mileage may vary.) I'd rank Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus and 25th Hour as Spike Lee's best films, and BlackkKlansman a tier below. I wouldn't have been upset if BlackkKlansman won Best Picture, but I would have seen it more as a lifetime achievement award for Spike Lee; I didn't feel he got robbed. (I did note, as did many others, that he keeps losing to movies about chauffeurs.) All that said, BlackkKlansman remains worth a look and more memorable than most Hollywood fare. (The best pieces I've found about its accuracy to date come from Slate, History vs. Hollywood and Time.) A little more in the…

Black Panther: Black Panther is an above-average installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was a cultural phenomenon, widely popular, but especially beloved by black audiences. T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is the king of the African country of Wakanda, which is secretly a technologically advanced nation owing much of its wealth and advances due to vibranium, a meteorite metal with special properties related to (you guessed it) vibration. In a prologue flashback, T'Challa's father T'Chaka (who was killed in Captain America: Civil War), confronts his brother, N'Jobu, about stealing some vibranium and selling it to an arms dealer. In the present, T'Challa must deal with the fallout – villainous Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has a vibranium-powered sonic weapon, and Erik "Killdozer" (Michael B. Jordan), who has an important connection to Wakanda.

Black Panther has several notable elements. The almost all-black cast is one of them, but writer-director Ryan Coogler and many other key members of the production team are black as well. It's the biggest-budget and most successful film ever in that category. The film is full of good secondary female characters: Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy and T'Challa's former girlfriend; Okoye (Danai Gurira), the fierce head of security; dignified Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Basset); and impish tech genius and T'Challa's younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). The chief villain, Killdozer, is given strong motivations and is arguably right in some of his positions; that hasn't always been the case for other Marvel villains. This means the struggle between T'Challa and Killdozer is physical, but also philosophical and political, making it pretty interesting. The core of the film is Boseman's strong performance as T'Challa, a man of honor and dignity (playfully undercut by the women in his life). He'll do what is right over what is easy. There's not much to dislike here; Daniel Kaluuya was good in Get Out but feels weak here, mostly furrowing his brow. Nakia becomes a damsel-in-distress briefly. But Winston Duke as M'Baku, a rival chief, is fantastic – boisterous, funny, and key to two of the movie's best scenes. Martin Freeman is fine as a CIA agent, although it's a little odd to hear him play an American. (As some folks joked, he and Serkis are the movie's Tolkien white guys.) Black Panther shares similarities with last year's Wonder Woman (reviewed here) in being an above-average superhero movie with considerable cultural impact. I liked Black Panther much more, though, mainly because I thought its final showdown was much stronger. A little more in the…

Avengers: Infinity War: Infinity War delivers a solid summer blockbuster and also represents an unprecedented achievement in cinematic planning, with a staggering 18 films building toward this one and its sequel. Let's start by taking a look at the film itself.

The Earth – nay, the universe! – is in peril due to big baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin), the mad titan. He feels the universe is overpopulated, and the only solution is killing half the population. To this end, he seeks all six infinity stones, powerful artifacts that would allow him to control reality itself and accomplish his goal. At the start of the film, he has one; trying to acquire each of the others presents challenges. We see Thanos take out Thor and the Hulk early on, so we know he's big, fast and tough. His lieutenants, the Black Order, seem pretty nasty, too (one of the film's few flaws is it doesn't identify them well).

Opposed to Thanos, are, of course, Earth's mightiest heroes, the Avengers, as well the Guardians of the Galaxy and anyone else who can answer the call. The key players in this film are Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and of course Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), plus many, many more. According to the filmmakers (directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), Infinity War juggles about 26 heroes. This does make it episodic, but the writing is tight enough that, although a character might not get a long scene, he or she gets a good moment or vignette. (A short scene between Rocket Raccoon and Thor, who's grieving but trying to put on a brave face, is a standout.) Each struggle for an infinity stone has a different dynamic, preventing the film from feeling too repetitive. We get some epic battles, but also good one-on-one and small team fights. We get plenty of moments of strong emotion based on characters and their relationships. There's an emotional core to all the key scenes.

As for flaws for the film, the biggest ones relate to its villain. Give Marvel credit for making Thanos more interesting than most comic book movie villains, but he's also pretty incomprehensible, and the filmmakers shy away from showing his full deviltry. Thanos somehow ignores that if he has godlike powers, he could easily provide resources for the universe's population instead of killing half of them. A deleted scene between him and Gamora delves into this a little, but it's a glaring issue that really should be at least touched on in the movie. Meanwhile, the filmmakers choose not to show Thanos devastating the planet Xandar to obtain his first stone, nor his extremely cruel maiming of a character played by Peter Dinklage.

As to Infinity War as an achievement in film, it's the cinematic equivalent of a comic book crossover series – one of the good ones, that is, because there have been some real stinkers. No one's ever done anything quite like this before. And although some of the Marvel movies squeezed in the infinity war storyline or other crossovers a bit awkwardly, most did a surprisingly good job. The Marvel movies to date haven't all been masterpieces, but even the worst are still decent and the best are excellent. Delivering solid stand-alone films that also build on each other is a pretty remarkable feat, and shouldn't be taken for granted.

Finally, anyone who read the original comics had an idea of the ending, but it came as a genuine surprise to many viewers, which is a minor coup. Here's hoping the next film, Avengers: Endgame, is awesome and sticks the landing. More in the…

Stan & Ollie: Stan and Ollie chronicles the later days of famed comedy duo Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). They're not big stars anymore, and are touring the British Isles while they hope to clinch a potential movie deal to launch a comeback. Stan and Ollie have been partners so long they're like an old married couple – they know each other's quirks and preferences, and can also squabble over seemingly petty things. My chief complaint is that I wanted to see more of their comedy sketches recreated – we get to see a few, and they're great, but more sketches would make the film funnier and would also heighten the stakes between their on-stage brilliance and backstage conflicts. Still, both Coogan and Reilly are superb; they capture the mannerisms of Laurel and Hardy (and the prosthetics work on Reilly is great), but the performances go deeper than caricature or mere imitation. The film is often more a drama about comedians than a comedy, and it exaggerates some of their professional setbacks and interpersonal conflicts. But it's a good film about long-time partners, particularly long-time performers, and the intimacy that can create. Your mileage may vary, but because of that storyline and being a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, I found the final set of scenes quite touching; the film resonated and moved me more than many other films of the year.

No comments: