Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

2019 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Six and the Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The Farewell: Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen), the matriarch of a Chinese family, is dying but her sister keeps the truth from her. Instead, the family decides to hurry the marriage of one of its youngest members, Hao Hao (Chen Han), to his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), as an excuse to gather everyone together to say goodbye to Nai Nai in China. Our main character is Billi Wang (Awkwafina), a second-generation Chinese-American living in New York City, who adores her paternal grandmother Nai Nai and is shocked to hear the plan from her parents, Haiyan Wang (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian Wang (Diana Lin). They explain that some Chinese people believe that worry hastens death more than the disease itself. Billi doesn't have the best poker face, and her parents agree to let her travel to China only on condition that she not tell Nai Nai the truth or mope about.

The Farewell has a setup reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) in that someone terminally ill isn't told of their diagnosis. Writer-director Lulu Wang based her film on her own life – the same situation occurred with her grandmother and family. As a result, The Farewell has a personal feel, as well as a nice mix of comedy and drama. Awkwafina typically plays comic supporting roles, but here she shows she can both play a serious role and be a film's lead. Although the film centers on Billi and everyone's relationship with Nai Nai and their grief, we also see plenty more from Billi: her dealing with being rejected from a fellowship; struggling to express herself in not-great Mandarin; and telling scenes about her familial relations. (Lu Jian: How many wontons do you want? Billi: ..Five. Lu Jian: That's not enough. Billi: Make it a dozen, then. Lu Jian: ...Ten.) Basing the film on her family members surely helped Lulu Wang know these characters (and her aunt Hong Lu, or "Little Nai Nai," plays herself), but it takes an observant eye to craft so many authentic moments. I thought The Farewell was one of the best smaller films of 2019.

(Here's Lulu Wang on on The Treatment, The Business and Fresh Air. And after you've seen the film, you'll find this January 2020 story interesting.)

Ad Astra: Ad Astra (which means "to the stars") is essentially 2001: A Space Odyssey mashed up with Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness, with astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) asked to seek out or at least contact his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a famous and celebrated astronaut the public believes to be dead. Earth is being buffeted by occasional power surges that cause great damage. Roy is told by the U.S. Space Command that his father may be still alive and also that they believe his father may be causing the surges. But as Roy progresses, he discovers new, key details that make him question the story he's been told.

Although the film involves several journeys through space, and some notable action, overall it's a pretty internal, reflective film, with heavy narration from Pitt as Roy McBride. Roy is an extremely cool customer – he stays calm under pressure, which is a huge asset for his work, but he's also emotionally blocked, repressing rage and other feelings, and thus pretty crappy at personal relationships. Pitt does a fine job and it's one of his best performances; honestly, I'd rate it above his Oscar-winning turn for 2019's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Ad Astra and his previous body of work almost certainly helped nab him the trophy. Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are memorable in supporting roles. Although director and cowriter James Gray bragged about the scientific accuracy of the film, a few key moments don't make sense but at least don't really affect the outcome. Overall, I thought Ad Astra was far more successful and satisfying than Interstellar in exploring a character and the human psyche in a science fiction setting.

Jojo Rabbit: A young boy in the Hitler Youth earnestly tries to be a good little Nazi, but he's simply too good-natured for it, despite the urgings of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Mixing comedy and Nazis has been done well in the past, but it's not the easiest feat. Jojo Rabbit does an admirable job of making us laugh while also showing us bigotry, terror and death. The film's success depends largely on a great debut performance by twelve-year-old Roman Griffin Davis as the young Johannes "Jojo" Betzler. He's got an open, expressive face, and even when Jojo tries to be harsh or cruel, it's clear he can't keep it for long. Davis handles the wide range of emotions the film demands impressively. Jojo's biggest challenge comes when encountering the boogeyman of the propaganda he's been fed, a real-life Jew, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a girl a bit older than he who's in hiding. Jojo tries to press Elsa for her "Jew secrets" to write a book, and she toys with him, amused but also saddened by how gullible he is about awful myths and whatever she concocts. Meanwhile, Jojo alternates between bonding and acting out with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) has Jojo putting up propaganda posters around town, where he sometimes runs into his good friend Yorki (Archie Yates). Throughout all this, Jojo is given advice by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, who mostly comes off as ridiculous if supportive but occasionally demanding. He's played with a comic flair by the writer-director, Taika Waititi. (There's added comedy in Waititi being part Maori and definitely not part of Hitler's master race.)

Jojo Rabbit fits well with Europa Europa, To Be or Not to Be and Life Is Beautful in successfully mixing Nazi-satirizing scenes with serious ones. All the major characters have some complexity – Jojo himself, Elsa, Rosie, and even Captain Klenzendorf. About my only criticism would be some deliberate anachronisms in the finale that I found distracting. But the film is definitely worth a look.

Avengers: Endgame: Give Marvel credit: not only did they deliver a great summer blockbuster, they managed to put a fitting capstone on all their films up to this point, and somehow make it look pretty easy. You do need to have at least seen Avengers: Infinity War (reviewed here), and many Endgame scenes will have more resonance if you've seen the other Marvel films, but otherwise, it's pretty self-sufficient. After a little action, the film slows down, and becomes much more about how the characters deal with grief and loss. The next major section is a complicated, multi-target time heist, and just as the filmmakers did in Infinity War, they bring variety to each segment. (Although parent-child scenes are a recurring theme in the movie.) Then, never fear, the movie's massive budget is put to use in an epic, multiphase, final battle. Endgame provides quite a few funny moments, but given the ending of the previous film, its overall feel is much more somber. And although it contrives some crowd-pleasing moments, such as all the heroines assembling, we don't mind much because they're fun, and other crowd-pleasing moments build on previous Marvel scenes and thus feel very much earned. (You probably know the big one.) Marvel remains excellent at knowing the characters and building the stories around them and their relationships. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) didn't have as large a role in Infinity War, but he's the key hero among dozens here, and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) remains integral as well. Likewise, we didn't see much of Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) in Infinity War, but he's essential for establishing the chilling opening of Endgame and the emotional stakes of the later heist. Infinity War, among other things, cleverly set up Endgame to center on the core Avengers team for the bulk of the movie, and they all get good scenes.

I have mixed feelings about how the film treats Thor (Chris Hemsworth). On the one hand, his changes show a different side of grief and makes use of Hemsworth's comic gifts. On the other, as with Thor: Ragnarok (reviewed here), if not as severe, the filmmakers sometimes go for the laugh even if the gag's not really in character, which is rare for Marvel. (To be fair, Thor does get a great, more serious moment during the heist sequence.)

Chances are you've already seen Endgame, but it boasts some fantastic spectacle, great character moments and some genuinely moving scenes. The craftsmanship is impressive, all the more so when Endgame is viewed as the culmination of about 20 films. As we covered in the Infinity War review, it's the cinematic equivalent of a comic book crossover series, one of the good ones. No one's ever done something quite like this before.

Relatedly, It's intriguing that both Endgame and the Game of Thrones finale came out in the same month, given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and "GoT" have both been cultural juggernauts. Game of Thrones, while offering some good moments in its final seasons, significantly botched its ending (for reasons I could explain at length but you've probably already seen elsewhere). Marvel managed to stick the landing, which is all the more remarkable given how high the expectations were. Also: some Game of Thrones fans were absolutely horrible about posting major spoilers before even other time zones got to watch new episodes. In contrast, Marvel fans (and Star Wars fans) have been consistently good about not giving away key spoilers.

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

Joker: Joker is a well-crafted film with a great lead performance, but it's pretty unpleasant viewing. We follow Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a party clown and struggling stand-up comic who's on medication he gets through social services – he has a condition that occasionally causes him to burst into uncontrollable laughter, which unsettles those around him. We see Arthur get mugged by teenagers and mocked by some of his coworkers; one of the few people who seems kind to him is a single mother neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). Arthur's mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), is in poor health, and tells him surprising tales of working for local millionaire, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). We're pretty sympathetic to Arthur Fleck because of the mistreatment we see him suffer and what we learn of his childhood, which included abuse up to possible brain damage. But he's also prone to sudden violent rages, and taking things too far, making him not someone you'd like to hang out with for long.

Joaquin Phoenix gives his best performance since The Master (the eleventh film reviewed here), and he's similarly feral, intense and riveting. We can't take our eyes off him as Arthur Fleck, even if it's uneasy viewing. Joker is also interesting for its meta touches – it explicitly references Martin Scorsese's films The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, both starring Robert De Niro, and De Niro himself appears in Joker as a major character, local talk show host Murray Franklin, who mocks footage of Fleck's stand-up act. Rather than being gimmicky, I thought the references gave the film more depth. Director and cowriter Todd Phillips was best known for The Hangover films before this, and he does produce some jet black comedy here, most memorably in a late scene involving Arthur's coworker Gary (Leigh Gill). The unsettling score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (who won the Oscar) adds to the unease. It's interesting that the comic book character the Joker has now won two actors Oscars (the other, of course, being the late Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, the second film reviewed here). You might guess some of Joker's twists, but I found that didn't detract from the viewing experience. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, and the filmmakers sought to make a disturbing film and succeeded. It's not a film I'm going to rush to see again, though.

Pain and Glory/Dolor y gloria: Pedro Almodóvar's latest film is semi-autobiographical and his most personally revealing film to date. We follow Salvador Mallo (frequent Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas), who like Almodóvar, is a gay director struggling with chronic pain who hasn't made a new film in a while. An old friend, Zulema (Cecila Roth) urges him to introduce one of his old films, Sabor (Flavor in English), which would require him to reconcile with the film's star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) with whom he had a falling out. Meanwhile, we see flashbacks of Mallo's childhood, with his mother Jacinta played by another Almodóvar favorite, Penélope Cruz. In the course of revisiting his old film and old relationships, plus dusting off an old, abandoned play, Mallo starts to revisit his past and also delve again into his creative side, all while fighting with physical pain and possibly some new addictions.

Banderas gives a vulnerable, sympathetic performance as Mallo, who's talented but hurting and withdrawn, and occasionally prone to undiplomatically speaking his mind. Almodóvar also offers an somewhat unconventional storyline with some unexpected turns and notable coincidences, making Pain and Glory a bit unpredictable. For instance, late in the film, we meet Mallo's mother in the almost-present-day, this time played by Julieta Serrano, and she and Salvador share some pivotal scenes. This is the best serious performance I've seen from Banderas, and Almodóvar remains an interesting filmmaker. (I was glad to see that a seeming incongruity was intentional and explained by the end.) This isn't a flashy film, but it's character-driven and quite a good one.


(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

The Report:
You have to make this work. It's only legal if it works.

A true story of an idealistic staffer fighting the system, The Report (or The Torture Report, with the word "Torture" crossed out), focuses on Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the key member of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into torture by the CIA under the Bush administration. Jones wants to get the truth, but the CIA pushes back. Jones also gets resistance from Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), who argues it's time to move on from this recent history. Jones' boss, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), sometimes supports his efforts but occasionally urges caution and seems more concerned with political calculations. But Jones finds or is contacted by people involved with the torture program with troubled consciences who want the truth known, and also has to consider breaking the rules to report everything to the public.

As you may know, Jones and his team reviewed countless pages and eventually produced a 6,700 page report that remains classified, with only portions released to date. (It should all be declassified.) Writer-director Scott Z. Burns picked an ambitious project – this is potentially difficult material, because on the one hand, poring through papers isn't inherently cinematic, while on the other, scenes involving torture and abuse may be gripping but disturbing. Credit Burns for managing to deliver both a decent thriller and primer on U.S. torture during the Bush era. Although The Report doesn't examine everyone in the Bush administration, I was impressed by its accuracy and responsible approach to a serious subject, which made a welcome change from Zero Dark Thirty (I have a very long post on that film here). The Report received generally positive reviews but a very limited release in theaters, although it is available on Amazon.

(For what it's worth, I saw The Report with friends who are less into this history who found it fairly compelling as both a movie and primer. Here's Scott Z. Burns on The Treatment, Morning Edition and the PBS NewsHour.)

Dark Waters: Another real-life story of an idealist fighting the system, Dark Waters follows lawyer Robert Billot (Mark Ruffalo) as he takes on the chemical company DuPont, a mighty corporate power. He comes to the case accidentally; he's a corporate defense lawyer, used to protecting big companies, but a farmer from his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who knows Billot's grandmother shows up asking for help. The farmer claims that DuPont is poisoning the water and causing the deaths of his cow herd, which is suffering from odd medical ailments. Billot initially isn't planning to get deep into the case, but after he visits the farm, sees videotapes, and uncovers more evidence, he finds himself sucked in – DuPont's much-touted Teflon seems to cause cancer and birth defects. Billot's just made partner at his law firm, and his doggedness soon makes him enemies at DuPont, most notably executive Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber). It also stresses relations at work; his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) tries to be understanding but is under pressure himself. Robert Billot's wife, Sarah Barlage (Anne Hathaway), likewise tries to be supportive, and is alternately proud of her husband and concerned about his health and seeming obsession with the case. The details depicted in the film are pretty chilling. Ruffalo's earnest performance gives the film its core, and the part of "the wife" is written with some welcome depth and variety, which Hathaway digs into with zest. Bill Camp is also good as Wilbur Tennant, the farmer who sets Billot on the case, as are Mare Winningham and Bill Pullman in small roles. Dark Waters is fairly engrossing as a film and sobering for its lasting real-world implications. After you see the film, I'd highly recommend checking out the All Things Considered interview with Mark Ruffalo and the real Robert Billot.

Just Mercy: Our third true story of an idealist fighting the system centers on Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young lawyer who travels to Alabama in 1989 to try to help death row inmates who cannot afford representation. He and his colleague Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) face considerable opposition in town just in renting an office, and Stevenson soon experiences far worse. Stevenson's key client becomes Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), charged with murdering a young white woman in a flimsy, manufactured case. Several factors make Just Mercy notable: one, it's based on an actual case and is presented realistically, which makes the clear injustice (and racism) all the more appalling. Two, Stevenson is not a white savior; being black helps him connect with his clients and their families, and also means he's subjected to harassment, as are his witnesses. Three, the performances, which are uniformly good, are naturalistic, even low-key. As Stevenson, Jordan never really makes flashy speeches (as in, say, A Few Good Men). Instead, he makes his arguments calmly, and rather than browbeating others, often uses a more understated, compassionate approach, appealing to the better angels of their nature. Jordan and Foxx give fine performances as the leads, but Tim Blake Nelson is also exceptional as Ralph Myers, a key witness, and Larson and Rafe Spall as the local D.A. are also good. Several of the locals urge Stevenson to visit the local To Kill a Mockingbird museum, but seem to want to think of racism as something that existed in the past. Just Mercy shows that isn't so, and unfortunately it remains a timely film.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: A passion project for director and cowriter Terry Gilliam, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was officially released in 2018 but only in the U.S. in 2019, first as a one-day, special event and later in limited release. If you've seen the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, about all the disasters that struck Gilliam's previous filming in 2000, and know that he'd been trying to make this film for almost 30 years, you have applaud his perseverance if absolutely nothing else. (The Wikipedia entry has a pretty exhaustive rundown.) Although The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is not as good as Gilliam's masterpieces, Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Fisher King, it's still got some fine scenes, and fans of either Gilliam or Don Quixote won't want to miss this one.

Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) is shooting a commercial in Spain featuring Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and a windmill. Toby's presented as pretty cynical and shallow, and is having an affair with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), the wife of "the Boss" (Stellan Skarsgård), but while at dinner, a man tries to sell him a DVD of Toby's student film, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Toby buys it and watches it, which brings back memories of when he had a soul, and the bonds he formed with his Don Quixote, played by a slightly nutty cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce). He also recalls his romantic relationship with Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a local young woman who played a small role in the film. Toby goes looking for them, and discovers that Javier now truly believes himself to be Don Quixote, and furthermore believes Toby to be Sancho Panza, his squire. Soon they are off on adventures together, and reality and fantasy increasingly seem to blur. Many of the incidents are taken directly from Cervantes' Don Quixote, although generally with some modern twist, as with the Knight of Mirrors. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would probably benefit from repeated viewings for its details and also likely suffers from high expectations given its tortuous development – personally, I liked it, but wanted to adore it and promote it far and wide. I'm not the biggest Adam Driver fan and Toby's shallowness in the beginning seems like a pale imitation of Jack from The Fisher King. But Jonathan Pryce makes a superb Don Quixote, Olga Kurylenko is quite good, and Joana Ribeiro is memorable as Angelica. Whatever The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is, it is not a cookie cutter film, and bravo to Terry Gilliam for finally getting it made.

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