3 (out of 4)
The Farrelly brothers can be most affectionately labeled proto-Apatow, but Green Book is far removed from their aged breed of humor. The comedy twosome grew more irrelevant with time but Peter – breaking away from Bobby (not the dumber, just the unluckier of the pair) – rejuvenated the merit of the Farrelly name overnight with Green Book, a film long donned with Oscar cachet since it received the People's Choice Award at TIFF.
Removed from a contextual acquaintance with Dumb and Dumber or There’s Something About Mary – not to mention ignoring the candor of its depiction of some kind of historical truth – Peter Farrelly's Green Book comes across as an effortlessly comic road trip movie embroiled with a few worthwhile sentiments and some impressive performances. The average viewer, cynicism not entirely deep-seated, will likely find the film's structure and themes timeless, translating soiled clichés into tender holiday escapism.
Still, between Don Shirley's nephew speaking out in sharp protest to the film's existence and Nick Vallelanga's own partiality in penning the script, the entire agenda of this movie will have people choosing sides in these unequivocally divisive times, especially vying over what qualifies as tact in regards to race relations. The younger Shirley resents that the son of Viggo Mortensen's character Lip Vallelanga went ahead with the film and, without his input which was indeed asked for, created what young Shirley believes to be a total fabrication. That's sure to be irksome, particularly given the "true friendship" part of the tagline. According to his kin, Shirley never considered Vallelanga a friend – therefore the film has no merit apparently, despite the fact that Farrelly's script purposely showcases him through a gradually more empathetic eye and given the respect with which Mahershala Ali plays Shirley.
All I'm saying is why complain later when you had the chance to improve the inevitable beforehand? And how often do we actually believe supposed true stories in film play out exactly as they occur? Green Book isn't Zodiac, and as painstaking as David Fincher's great film is there are liberties taken for the sake of cinematic storytelling. Maybe Shirley really despised Vallelanga – still this road trip happened and the sentiments meant to be imparted are pretty indispensable, especially considering how much attention is paid to Shirley's undeniable virtuosity.
Following the sad and shameful hit and miss hilarity of Dumb and Dumber and the vivid screwball romance of Mary, Green Book is a natural result of slyly tender maturity eventually outweighing the crude humor. In writing alone Farrelly's film far exceeds any former expectations but the performances are what seals Green Book as spellbinding even at its most treacly. Ali is a recent Oscar winner and all but confirmed to become another and Mortensen is sadly playing fourth whistle to Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale and finally Rami Malek. Their caricatures become surprisingly real by the hallmark conclusion and the performers each deserve their due praise.
It may fit the blueprint of today's average Oscar bait, but damn if Green Book doesn’t strike you like it's supposed to. It’s design is to please the mild temperaments of educated liberals but it’s so effortlessly classic (more Rain Man than Driving Miss Daisy if we're comparing BP winners) that its glaring faults are worth forgiving. Truthfulness and triteness rest but a few, ham-filled degrees apart, so despite superficially appearing to be a product of the latter category, Peter Farrelly possesses the uncommon ability to see past today's politics to arrive at a veracious destination free of the acrimony associated with his past work and any agendas of another us v. them position in today's political atmosphere.
3 (out of 4)
The Coen Brothers aren’t renowned for their artistic stasis. So following the less than fervent reception this decade with the folk tragedy of Inside Llewyn Davis (which nonetheless rests alongside their best to date) and the Hollywood skewering in Hail! Caesar, America's real dynamic duo escape to Netflix to experiment with film anthology and assist in altering the cinematic landscape of the most popular streaming service. Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is the equally distinguished flip-side of this high-profile one-two punch.
The Brothers have tried their hands at Westerns several times, whether in neo-noirs more representative of their compositions like the pair's debut Blood Simple and their magnum opus No Country For Old Men, or their recent remake of True Grit. Yet Buster Scruggs is most similar to the saturated crusades of O Brother Where Art Thou?. Similar to spinning country tales out of The Odyssey, Ballad rattles off a number of different tunes in the tumbleweed tradition – some straight, some strange, all Coen. Though the quality and conviction of the film relies on the oscillating tone and variety of ambition betwixt the six short stories, Buster Scruggs is a savory encapsulation of everything else they've ever wished they could do with the dilapidated genre. Stagecoaches, prospectors, gunslingers and wanted posters – I’d accuse them of simple deconstruction but the performances are too terrific, the scenery and production too beautiful and the writing is too wily and pointed.
After the most parodic sketch for our titular character serves as the hilarious musical opener, the film takes the turn for the tragic, ironic and quietly existentialist. The fourth segment "All Gold Canyon" with Tom Waits as a guileless prospector in search of gold, as well as courtship on the wagon trail in the highlight segment thereafter "The Girl Who Got Rattled," feel like miniature classics alongside many a Coen film. Every portion has a full purpose.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is relatively insignificant compared to your average Coen joint given its release platform and episodic structure. Still, despite themes and tricks that have served them all but flawlessly the past three decades, this album of a film is but the latest proof that cinema's best bros will never be done taking you off guard with poetic swoop of melancholy or a proper punch of mirthfulness.
1 ½ (out of 4)
J. K. Rowling proved herself fantasy's biggest fraud once she reached the uninspired denouement of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (wow Harry is just like Jesus, amazing). Later her poorly received Broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a directly cinematic debut in the tolerably superficial Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them presented little evidence that the Wizarding World is as carefully thought through as fans want to believe. Regardless, Rowling's first screenplay was the inception of a prospective five-film franchise and Warner Brothers will scour and scrounge for every cent they can retrieve from the carcass of their most regularly profitable property.
In following up the phenomenon of her young adult heptalogy, Rowling has gone down a path trodden most famously by George Lucas: attempting to cement the touchstone of one's creative legacy with fruitless, inconsequential prequels. The history of wizards and witches has infinite potential for narrative pleasures but Rowling's new stories are pathetically written. Given how she's distorted Pottermania in order to sow the seeds for future, equally undesirable films, this is universe expansion at its worst. The Crimes of Grindelwald echoes the worst of the Star Wars franchise in more ways than one.
Though Rowling, just like Lucas, leans on both homage and her own basic mythos for support, she's reaching Disney-tier levels of spoonfed fan service. It's as if either her lack of palpable genius or studio interference demanded a certain number of callbacks and easter eggs to the recognizable elements of the very familiar world of Harry Potter (remember THE SORCERER'S STONE?!). The Force Awakens and Rogue One are just as shameless in this respect but where the SW comparisons paint the most proportionate picture is in how similar Grindelwald is to The Last Jedi. Both films are thorough failures rendered slightly noble by overindulgence for the sake of artistic investigation. The Crimes of Grindelwald is full of enterprising concepts but it's risky and daring in the exact same illogical and ideologically misplaced fashion that Episode VIII was last year. For all its moving parts, nothing is of particular importance and narrative momentum is a mere illusion. Rowling tries her hand at many conflicts, characters, jokes and action sequences, but they all feel reminiscent of better times in the Potterverse no matter how far she ventures from well-known areas.
Given how often you are tricked into thinking you're watching prime Potter, it's tempting to liken The Crimes of Grindelwald to a Disney product but only a prima donna like Rowling could reach Zach Snyder levels of dreariness. A film with the central premise of MAGIC should be fun but with a dozen characters to cycle through – Zoë Kravits, Erza Miller, Callum Turner, the list goes on – and three whole movies to set up, boredom sets in quickly. I enjoy how basic spells now require no exposition but those little efficiencies don't leave the plot any less bumbled. David Yates is in his sixth go round with the wand-waving stuff and all this entry adds up to is an extended trailer for the rest of the series.
Even our lead – Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander – feels swept up and confused for a side character. Like in the previous installment, Newt's relationship with Katherine Waterston's Tina Goldstein is the solitary point of emotional interest. Jude Law and Johnny Depp are both well chosen as youthful Dumbledore and Grindelwald respectively, and though they perform with dignity the overcrowded script simply doesn't afford them enough screen time. Instead we have 15 minutes outlining the Lestrange family tree and recycling racist themes from back in the Chris Columbus days.
The first Fantastic Beasts was properly self-contained other than that stupid final twist. It benefited from a level of lukewarm originality despite being inferior to even the campiest (Chamber of Secrets) or the most infuriatingly adapted (Order of the Phoenix) of the former film series. Grindlewald's gotcha ending is much worse than its predecessor and wastes a lot more time setting it up. Just like she developed a habit of climactic, emotional deaths from entries 4 through 6 of Harry Potter, Rowling presently confuses pointless character revelations with dramatic payoff.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Steve McQueen requires no introduction. The man can lay claim to the most heartrending and meritorious Best Picture winner of the decade and his abbreviated filmography has thus far been spotless. After a few years toiling away at HBO, McQueen returns to cinema with his dramatic heist film Widows, doubtless his most accessible release yet.
On paper the film appears to be an unmistakable masterwork in the making and an effortless triumph for McQueen. Apart from plenty of prestige and the pertinent subjects of female empowerment and political cynicism, the cast of Widows is a distinguished list of players. Just with Viola Davis in the lead – which is to not mention Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez and Jacki Weaver supporting – this appeared, from afar, to be not only a shoo-in for Academy buzz but destined for the higher honor of copious praise among the year's finest. Disappointment can be as hard to shake as exaggerated expectations following such as monumental career, yet Widows, for all its relative inadequacies, is one of the stronger releases in a very weak holiday lineup.
You want to love it – the premise compels curiosity, the direction is fully realized and the performances are more than serviceable. But it's difficult to deny how disenchanting Widows ultimately is. Hunger, Shame and, most decisively, 12 Years a Slave were all stories bearing urgency and purpose in their telling – the formal integrity merely sealed their potency. Widows too is forged with cinematic intelligence on behalf of McQueen's direction but Gillian Flynn’s story, based on a 1983 British television series, can’t escape the framework of a soap opera or a sleazy paperback. No matter how fetching the feminine heist concept or how passionate the acting, the twists, buildup and even the memorable encounters with Daniel Kaluuya are stilted at minimum, and the climax is frustratingly scant. As a comeback following a try at TV, Widows is superficial enough enough to say it'd be better suited for the small screen like its derivation.
But as much as critiques come faster when the maker's résumé is most laudable, when the film works it crackles like I dearly hoped it would. Davis and everyone behind her put forth fortitude and McQueen makes the most of the film’s terse bursts of action. It's best moments may not quite compensate for its substantial weaknesses but Widows earns a positive reaction by the skin of its teeth and the preeminence of its credentials.
2 (out of 4)
Joel Edgerton the director is an anomaly – he's often typecast as a villain in other projects and he does the same thing to himself. With a penchant for inserting antagonistic self-directed performances, The Gift and now Boy Erased are afforded a strange subtext that lends each of his films a disservice. The former was a solid psychological thriller stifled by Edgerton's own farfetched writing and distracting casting. In Boy Erased, the director has his hands some fresh Oscar bait subject matter and a new deranged loony to inhabit – this time instead of an avenging nerd weirdo we have a hyper-Catholic gay conversion therapist.
The main problem is there's nothing subtle about Edgerton’s presence or performance, and as the main extension of the movie's moral conflict there's nothing understated about the film either. Boy Erased is a thinly veiled hate letter to far right conservichristians who despise the LGBTQ+ community. While Edgerton’s performance is strained, Lucas Hedges' lead performance is the film’s only exceptional asset. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, as the insensitive parents, are like amateur stage actors next to Hedges straitlaced verisimilitude – they're own attempt at nuance is almost equal to Edgerton's hamminess, especially Crowe.
The film’s sensory output is one of perpetual gloom doused in teal and grey and as we're lulled into dreariness. Moments meant to shock or apply emotion are irregular in their effectiveness. The film's internal text – plainly used in order to let liberals applaud themselves for identifying the obvious villainy behind blatant emotional trauma – is far from terribly refined. But despite the easy footing on this moral high ground, Edgerton is still able to present the familial and internal struggles of this topic with exposé-like docudrama.
But if you're not into the political topic flavor of the month – or just one of those people who doesn't carve out time to see a scene of anal rape – Boy Erased, much like the superior social issue movie Beautiful Boy, is poised to flounder in reference to Academy attention. A distaste for Catholicism may suffice to not automatically say "skip!"; or maybe even that's not enough.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Claire Foy is having an exemplary breakout year and a leading role in a film as mediocre as The Girl in the Spider’s Web can’t hamper the momentum of her ascending career. She was the phenomenal face of Steven Soderbergh's Unsane – perhaps the most underrated movie of the year – and Foy is likely to lock down a Best Supporting Actress nomination for First Man.
As the newest Lisbeth Salander, Foy is suitable enough as the hot topic hacker but she doesn't possess the right shade of brooding, fragile vigor embodied by Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara. Still she manages to considerably enhance the material with her capable presence in spite of a flimsy accent. Miscasting is the least of the problems with Spider’s Web – the faithful Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s beloved trilogy as well as David Fincher’s robust American remake all offer unquestionably superior adult escapism. If the latest film seems like an off-brand reboot, it's because the substandard incarnation stems from books written by David Lagercrantz, Larsson’s successor to the Millennium series following his death in 2004.
While director Fede Álvarez rightfully made 2016's Don’t Breathe an enjoyable horror hit after initiating his career with a Sam Raimi-approved Evil Dead redo, his inky, icy touch isn’t enough to either improve a deficient script he helped pen or give Lisbeth back her established infamy. To be fair, even Fincher’s meticulous murkiness couldn’t redeem the trite tangle of Spider’s Web, which takes everything annoyingly implausible about Jason Bourne movies twice as serious. There are a few neat sequences in the first act but once Salander's story is wrapped up with Lakeith Stanfield’s overly gifted NSA agent, a targeted youngster (Christopher Convery) comically forced into her care and a long lost sister slash cartoon villain played by Sylvia Hoeks (Luv of Blade Runner 2049), the plotting becomes plodding.
The emotional pivots of the film are as flaccid and formulaic as they are in something like the average James Bond movie. Spider’s Web pedestrian script chooses to forgo the mystery element of the series in order to posit itself as a fashionably clichéd action movie just violent enough to bear an R rating, convoluted enough to qualify as mature and packed with enough tepid confrontations and spyware to call it a thriller. This Girl's worst sin is it stretches a meager 43 million dollar budget into blockbuster bucks, actively assisting audience boredom by amping up what should be mostly macabre and enigmatic. Ironically every attempt to inject excitement into this misguided bit of brand burnishing is another compounding instance of disinterest within a guessable narrative.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Paul Dano offers 2018 its supreme actor-turned-director display – the eccentric performer's cinematic savvy exceeds ambitious A-listers like Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill, or John Krasinski in front of or behind the camera. While no gobsmacking masterpiece, Wildlife is a dexterous, contemplative period drama ripe with accomplished filmmaking facets across the spectrum. The decor, lighting and editing, not to mention the stellar stagecraft, are all superlative – this doesn’t feel like Dano’s first rodeo.
Written by both Dano and his longtime romantic partner Zoe Kazan, Wildlife is adapted from the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford. Refining the material to his liking, Dano has no trouble composing a solemn meditation on the disintegration of nuclear-era domesticity. The applicability of the 1960-set film lies largely in the erosion of the era's idealism and the atrophy of martial love. Universally, Wildlife looks straight into the blemished and resentful face of divorce and precisely paints all the unspoken pain it yields.
It's unfair to Dano but Wildlife is an actor's film if ever there was one. Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould are each extraordinary individually and terrific together. The experienced parental performers exhibit themselves to the foremost of their abilities and the authenticity of the sprouting protagonist in all his frustrated powerlessness is too close for comfort. Gyllenhaal – still as superb as we've come to expect – might have outshone Mulligan's motherly role if he wasn't so absent from the story. As a lonely wife losing grasp of her fidelity and maternal instincts, Mulligan adds to a repertoire already stocked with impressive achievements with a career-best performance.
This subdued stroke of genius is no contender for much awards consideration. Yet even narrowly examined as an acting showcase, Wildlife is more unnecessary evidence that Paul Dano is a Hollywood outsider capable of classic-tier creative contributions. And yes, Mulligan and Gyllenhaal will have their Oscar speeches planned for some career-encapsulating project down the road, but it's Ed Oxenbould bearing the soul of the film. While he's a discouragingly passive protagonist, his acting reflects the reserved, modest dissatisfaction that Dano himself has come to exhibit so well himself.
Bolstered by indispensable themes and masterly performances, Dano's manner in arranging these elements is so good that Wildlife is a delicacy even at its most dispiriting.
1 ½ (out of 4)
With Tchaikovsky’s rapturously iconic ballet and a story as simple and surreal as E.T.A. Hoffmann's enduring 1816 fable at your disposal – not to mention 120 million dollars – how did Disney's spin on a Christmas classic turn out as pitifully deficient as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms?
Since, as a rule, invented sequels to popular lore are always inferior to their inspirations (how I hate to recall Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland), the abundantly affluent studio has warped dreamlike source material into a dull and diluted fantasy adventure. Disney is extremely practiced at shaping digestible and predictable family-friendly fare but the proclivity for pressing their stamp on established fiction could use some restraint in general, and especially here. You don't need to see the names of two directors in the credits – Lasse Hallström primarily and Joe Johnston for reshoots – to realize this Nutcracker was produced not by creative impetus but rather to cash in on the ballet's lasting onstage popularity.
Every character is an indistinct caricature. Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer, Kiera Knightly as the Sugar Plum Fairy nor Mackensie Foy as the central figure Clara cannot redeem celestially callous filmmaking. Acting was less the principal reason I entered a tyke-teeming theater than it was for Tchaikovsky's orchestral music. The movements alone are dazzlingly, resplendently expressive as Disney themselves proved in one of their greatest achievements Fantasia. At first some of the most famous sonic passages are present before getting misplaced within plot-heavy rubbish, when dancing could have told the story far better than neophyte Ashleigh Powell's script. James Newton Howard's accompanying score is forced to make up for the multiple movie moments Disney felt couldn't be harmonically sustained by the Russian composer's work – skilled as Howard is, his adjacent symphonic measures are meager next to Tchaikovsky’s innumerable timeless melodies.
In discounting unrestricted access to a wellspring of beautiful music and storytelling, Disney moreover squanders the opportunity to produce a potentially definitive screen version of The Nutcracker. The 1986 Maurice Sendak-assisted attempt did the ballet best and the Japanese 1979 stop motion feature exercised real narrative invention – neither are exactly exemplary but the Mouse King had boundless resources and wasted most of them. Although this Nutcracker's sheer production value is exorbitant, the fantastical factors are implemented without awe or splendor. Disney's substantial monetary exertion only accentuates the degree of wasted effort spent on a most prosaic adaptation.
2 (out of 4)
After eight tumultuous years in production, the arrival of Bohemian Rhapsody is hardly the momentous occasion for the music biopic genre one might expect from transcribing the extravagant life of Freddie Mercury to the screen. Succeeding only in staging the influential British rock band's most recognizable tracks with lifelike stand-ins and lively camerawork, the film is little more than a shot of nostalgia for baby boomers and Queen 101 for young punters.
Bohemian Rhapsody is manufactured to pander to those with scarcely an iota of familiarity with pop culture, which is to say anyone. But for music savants craving some scrutiny regarding Mercury's distinctive genius (as the film isn't really concerned with Queen at large), the pang of paucity will be poignant due to the paltry, bullet-pointed and undeveloped scripting. Writer Anthony McCarten's screenplay is dominantly comprised of obvious references and historical simplifications – Queen's speedy rise to international domination from 1970 to 1985 is awkwardly crammed into a three-act script simulator. McCarten is contented to appeal to plebeian emotions and convert facts to fantasy, not unlike his other feathery and shamelessly sentimental English biopics The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour.
However, the sloppy editing and shoestring narrative impetus can be chiefly blamed on Bryan Singer, who was fired as director late last year after rumors of showing up late to work and clashing with the film crew, especially lead Rami Malek. Singer's name has already been clouded by multiple accusations of child sexual abuse but he deserves derision for taking full credit for two-thirds the filmmaking labor and exhibiting less than half the stylistic commitment of even his worst X-Men film. Replacement director Dexter Fletcher has not been awarded recognition as per the rules of the Directors Guild of America.
Malek on the other hand is so much better than anyone dearly wishing for the Sacha Baron Cohen version could have hoped for. His prosthetic British chompers are downright distracting in the first act but by the time the clean cut and mustache are in play, Malek operates smoothly as a convincing imitator of Mercury’s signature theatrical flamboyance. His acting alone, while exaggerated even for Mercury, salvages the film altogether. The supporting cast is also admirable – Gwilym Lee as lead guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor and Joseph Modello as bassist John Deacon are all just as plausible aside Malek's extraordinary performance. The real life Taylor and May were consulted during production and were the most outspoken against Cohen's casting. Their input seems negligible though, as Bohemian Rhapsody's narrative abbreviates the band's history and the muffled PG-13 rating eschews the reality of rock and roll – sex, drugs and foul mouths.
Failing to live up to the traditional standards of Straight Outta Compton, Get On Up and Walk the Line or even make an attempt at the experimental, poetic contemplation of I'm Not There or Love & Mercy, Bohemian Rhapsody is a safe and featureless portrait of a fearless and unforgettable performer. Still, the swimmingly climactic rendition of Queen's celebrated Live Aid concert and Malek's soulful caricature save the film from total tedium – easy come, easy go.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
so many briefings