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If Beale Street Could Talk — 8/10

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018, Barry Jenkins)

Begins with a pregnancy announcement, then proceeds to let the entire movie swell like a kicking womb, life growing inside it until it can barely stand up. James Laxton’s vibrant colors and warm light make the entire thing glow with nearly unmatched romanticism (you could rip off worse people than Wong Kar-wai), and Nicholas Britell’s luscious score peppers falling autumn leaves of violin strings all over its characters. It’s hard to imagine a more human, adoring, soft, organic movie can be made about decades of oppressive, institutionalized racism tearing apart families, ruining lives, and damaging true love.

And sure enough, that social injustice is on Jenkins’s mind (though evidently not as much as Baldwin’s, who focused more heavily on it in his source novel) — his goal is to cultivate sympathy for a couple so likable, a relationship so pure, and a baby so desired, that the threat of losing it all becomes that much more painful. It’s the way Harlem in the ’70s breathes, the way Kiki Layne and Stephan James (two powerhouse performances that come out of nowhere from two unknowns) stare at each other, and the way Fonny’s false imprisonment doesn’t only separate the white authority from the oppressed blacks, but the way it fractures tenuous bonds between Fonny’s family and Tish’s, and between women like Sharon and Victoria. The collateral damage when people get arrested for being black is far-reaching and devastatingly permanent.

At times, Jenkins’s romantic touch pulls you out of the movie and turns the spotlight on the hardworking crew members: there’s the sculpting sequences filled with beautiful smoke; the way that all the costumes — even Fonny’s prison shirt — look like this is the first time they’ve ever been worn, so perfectly clean and new; and an ending that doesn’t grant catharsis — it merely exhales and fades out. But I’ll take a tone that leans in this direction over another “gritty” PSA-style lecture. It’s a joy to watch, even when it’s tough to confront.

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Short Takes — Jan 3, 2019

SHOPLIFTERS (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Not among the most electrifying Palmes D’Or to come out of Cannes lately, but a sign that Kore-eda is getting away from the insecure, rigid formalism he hid behind in his 30s (though I adore MABOROSI). Now a middle-aged and experienced filmmaker, he’s loosened up and taken the character-first premise of STILL WALKING to a wiser extreme: this one is all observations and moments, quietly building to a forceful message about how you can choose your family, but said family can still contain the dysfunctions and complications of ones you’re born into. It’s a little confused and takes too many whip-saw turns in the last half hour, but the performances are so likable it’s not an easy film to dismiss.

BIRD BOX (2018, Susanne Bier)

Yes, it’s definitely THE HAPPENING meets A QUIET PLACE and fits somewhere between the two in quality. The strangers-locked-in-a-house-or-grocery-store scenario plays better in THE MIST and falls victim here to some thin characterizations and formulaic beats, but Bier’s heart is in Bullock’s Mallory, a reluctant mother with a lot of reservations about how to navigate the apocalypse burdened with too much responsibility. Extra credit for a biracial romance that not only ignores race, but also a marked age difference between them, where for a change it’s the woman who’s older. Unfortunately Bier’s direction falters when it comes to action and suspense, cheating on the visual rules too many times. (e.g. If we’re gonna be stuck in the car only having the parking sensors to tell us what’s near, then please don’t show anything on the outside until we get to the market — every time she cuts away to a body on the ground or a car in the road or a sidewalk or a parking lot, the effect is destroyed).

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Vice — 7/10

VICE (2018, Adam McKay)

Funny and depressing in equal measure, VICE is McKay’s entertaining but less successful follow-up to THE BIG SHORT (and, by extension, THE OTHER GUYS) in his quest to destroy-by-satire the powerful white capitalists eroding the country bit by bit. There’s a healthy amount of Trump rage here too, with Lynne Cheney’s stump speech (while her husband is laid up with his first of five heart attacks) essentially promising to drain the swamp and eliminate the immigrants. (McKay also clumsily cuts in Reagan’s first use of “Make America great again” to make the obvious connection). He keeps the tone caustically funny and ups the ante on the Margot-Robbie-in-the-bathtub style info-dumps, which are hit and miss but almost always viscerally energetic in a way that builds momentum and cooks up fury.

And in the first half, Cheney is developed as a shockingly three-dimensional monster, an oxymoron of a character that has you understanding his humanity while decrying his demonic ascent — and that’s all thanks to Bale’s sensational work. Like Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn before him, Bale’s Cheney is one of those biopic turns that so far exceeds the (albeit incredibly accurate) mimicry that marks a superficial SNL impersonation and turns into a real-live performance of depth, movement, and growth (though in this case rather than a Denzel-in-MALCOLM X self-actualization, his heart literally blackens as he moves further towards rapacious ghoul). Adams does equally astute work as well, further separating Bale and herself from the cosmetic, softball impressions Steve Carell (Rummy) and Sam Rockwell (Dubya) are up to.

In the final third, however, the movie loses steam as its focus gets away from Cheney’s driving motivation (that began when Rumsfeld laughed when he questioned what the party “believes”) and becomes a this-happened-then-this-happened rehashing of the 9/11-WMDs-Iraq-Saddam fiasco of the Bush presidency. McKay is preaching more to the choir than ever in this section, right when we don’t need reminders — we need a narrative. Still, he ends his screed with two uppercuts: a fourth-wall-breaking soliloquy that implicates the audience, then a misanthropic mid-credits assault bluntly separating American masses into two equally reprehensible groups: MAGA-types attacking The Libs, and head-in-the-sand sheep escaping into pop culture dreck. His characterization is simplistic and reductive, but I can’t help but sympathize with his lack of answers or positivity, because when it feels like the bad guys won (or, more accurately, we are the bad guys now), why bother pretending there’s a silver lining?

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The Mule — 7/10

THE MULE (2018, Clint Eastwood)

A fine companion piece to David Lowery’s THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, Clint Eastwood’s THE MULE is another swan song for an American icon of the ’60s and ’70s, reckoning with a life of chasing a satisfaction just out of reach. (Both films even contain the hero’s love interest laughing when he tells her of his criminal behavior; a HEAT-style scene midway of cop and crook shooting the shit in a diner; and a climactic chase where the law closes down on the hero driving alone in his car through the American heartland).

In Lowery’s film, the themes were concerning the passage of time, aging, and the existentialist concerns of defining one’s identity through action. Eastwood, however, is dwelling on something more socio-political. Ever the Libertarian, Clint has made a paean to the virtues of personal accountability, and centered his own character’s arc around the ultimate acceptance of responsibility. Add to that a series of scenes that underscore the inescapable burden of having to answer to a boss no matter who you are (an informant, a DEA agent, a station chief, a henchman, etc.), and you’ve got a strong argument for Rand Paulism. Earl Stone in this movie is his own man, free from the shackles of big government and big corporations, yet he must still tackle the consequences of a crumbling economy that threaten both his hobby and his family. (Speaking of his family, there’s more than a little autobiography here: casting his daughter as his daughter is one thing, but Clint is a guy with at least 8 kids by 6 women, two of whom were his wives — it’s not surprising to see him open up to Dianne Wiest’s character like this, or to have two separate threesome scenes).

All of that stuff is perfectly fine — agree or disagree with his politics, it’s an argument well explored and intelligently supported; plus, Eastwood is having a blast playing Earl. It’s a real performance, not just an 88 year-old coot shuffling through his dialogue. But the DEA scenes feel far more rote and obligatory — little narrative function is achieved by spending so much time with the pursuit, so we’re left only to contemplate its meaning on a thematic level. Some of the superfluous material serves to explore identity politics — how Earl engages with blacks and Latinos, how police regard Hispanics, and how a Filipino objects to being called a Mexican. And while most of this is on the money, I’m not sure we needed the detour of the Latino motorist pulled over and freaking out about the scenario: it adds nothing to the story and thus feels the most didactic and self-indulgent. However, there’s a key detail that shows the passing of the torch from an elderly white movie star to a young Hispanic role player: throughout his career, Clint was the guy wearing the cowboy hat. In this scene, it’s that motorist, and it’s “statistically the five most dangerous minutes” of his life.

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The Favourite — 7/10

THE FAVOURITE (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Fast-paced, scabrous, and devilishly irreverent, this is not the stuffy Anglophilic period piece you expect to see around Oscar-bait time. It’s an acidic sour candy you suck on for two hours then feel a little lacking in nutrients. Not to say Lanthimos’s hired-gun follow-up to the more personally substantial THE LOBSTER and KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (his breakthrough features following smaller Greek efforts like DOGTOOTH and ALPS) isn’t rich in quality — it has all-star skill to spare in every department from production design and cinematography to the stellar cast — but the only drawback is that when it’s over, you feel like it’s over. None of the noise echoes past the two hours you spend in its spell.

But oh, that cast. Emma Stone plays against type deliciously, at first earning your sympathies, then mocking your naiveté. Olivia Colman is fierce from the opening shot, where she stands firm and regal until the crown is removed from her head, at which point she almost collapses from the literal and metaphorical weight removed. And Nicholas Hoult – unrecognizable from his days as the adorable moppet from ABOUT A BOY (or even the wan sex object from A SINGLE MAN) – is having a blast as an obnoxious, sneering Jared Kushner-type. 

What develops in this darkly comedic retelling of Queen Anne’s real-life relationships with Lady Sarah Marlborough and Abigail is a caustic reminder that in governments structured around dictatorships or aristocracies, everything from taxes to wars can be decided upon (and inflicted upon the masses) based on the whims of a jealous lover or a betrayed, scorned victim. The things that make humans malicious actors, beholden to the vagaries of revenge, love, and greed, are the same things that can make or ruin a country. 

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Roma — 7/10

ROMA (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)

A loose, haphazard, listless collection of snapshots scattered on a floor, ROMA slowly gathers them together and pins them to a cork board labeled Slice of Life. As each ambling moment is shakily linked to the next, the overall story steadily builds up some steam, and things cohere fairly nicely down the stretch — but coherence does not equal emotional force, and you may end up a little unmoved by the results.

Plenty of sequences stand out on their own — the most memorable being the hospital delivery room and the beach rescue — but others come across like forced poetry: Cuarón imagining the lyrical power an image may have and thrusting it upon the audience without any dynamic storytelling leading you there. Here’s a shot of a baby in ICU with earthquake debris perilously atop its enclosure. Here’s a political uprising causing a riot outside a furniture store where two characters are shopping for a crib. He’s a master filmmaker with an uncommon gift for being able to tell a story without dialogue, so there’s plenty of great wordless exposition and character development (Fermín going back to drink the last of Cleo’s Coke, but not take the money she left on the counter; the ordeal of parking the Galaxy in its narrow driveway, etc.). But there’s also the sense that there are a lot of ideas here for a patchwork quilt of a movie that doesn’t have the focus of something like A LITTLE PRINCESS or Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN.

Aside from his one hired-gun franchise movie (he did Harry Potter 3 or something), this is the first Cuarón feature not to employ the DP work of Emmanuel Lubezki. Perhaps that’s why the camerawork here — while gorgeous at times — leans a little too much on the crutch of the oscillating fan technique, covering most scenes in one shot and slowly panning back and forth to pick up action. But it’s going to be hard for any movie to top the dolly across the sand with the sun backlighting Cleo, or the opening shot of a tile floor splashed with soapy water, revealing a reflection of the sky above (note how often he uses reflection: dirty water, a waxed tabletop, you name it he’ll find a surface that can reflect a world outside the reach of its heroine). And in Cleo (and huge credit to rookie Yalitza Aparicio for a warm, understated performance of wisdom and tenderness), Cuarón has presented us a character through which to view a world that is harsh, indifferent, dangerous, and vast, but can somehow find a way to reflect back to us the model of giving, guileless, motherly affection. 

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — 7/10

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018, Joel & Ethan Coen)

Fully into their 60s, it’s fair to call the Coen Brothers old, or at least in their late period. And this is the first of their work to feel like an elder’s patient parable. No longer curious or experimenting, it feels like they’re wrapping it up, having solidified a world view and are ironing out the wrinkles as they plow forward in what may be the last decade of their remarkable output. They’ve never done an anthology of disconnected stories, though, so it’s a departure without feeling like a voice from anyone else. I’m sure future viewings (as they always do with the Coens) will unpack more delightful details, but as it stands this really is no more than the sum of its parts — so I might as well break it down and discuss it chapter by chapter… (some spoilers follow, so don’t read this if you want to go in blind)

Chapter 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Could have begun and ended everything, as it serves as both a summary and a culmination of Coen philosophy. Nelson is a conduit for the Coens answering their critics who call them misanthropes — they don’t hate people, as Nelson explains, they find all their immoral and incompetent behavior merely an expression of being human. In other words, it isn’t people that they hate: it’s the human condition itself. Watch any of their works from BLOOD SIMPLE to FARGO to THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and you’ll see that attitude expressed in many beautiful and hilarious ways. (It’s notable here that during Nelson’s crowd-rallying, bar-top musical number, the Coens cut back several times to the grieving brother of Curly Joe and the gruesome sight of Joe’s corpse; it is not funny or joyous). Furthermore, this piece says that every good artist (gunslinger) reaches the end of their rope, as a better (faster) one will always come along. And they’ll take on your name, too. So your identity is tied to what you do, not who you are. 

Chapter 2: Near Algodones 

A bit of a rehash of Coen plots from yesteryear, notably MILLER’S CROSSING and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, which both involve a protagonist exonerated (or gone unpunished) for something he did, but held accountable for something he didn’t. Justice in the world of the Coens is never fair; these are just things that happen. Despite the well-worn territory, this gives Franco a chance at the perfect line-reading of the best joke in the story: “First time?” Lest the story pass without a dark, cynical twist, however, we get two needles: one is that the hood goes on a split second too late (so Franco’s final image of the girl is of her scowl, not her smile), and second is the cheering of the crowd. Never underestimate an audience’s bloodthirstiness. Is that why we’ve been treated to so much gory violence in this movie?

Chapter 3: Meal Ticket

Perhaps the bleakest segment, it’s another allegory for the film industry — Neeson is a studio exec, and when one high-brow act begins to lose its audience, he swiftly hitches himself to a low-brow one. What’s the villain in this downward slide towards idiocracy? It could be the insipid whims of the drooling (paying) masses; the greed and carelessness of the producer; the disposable value of performance; or the idea itself of the unholy destructive union of art and commerce. The kicker: we don’t even know if the chicken is going to perform. 

Chapter 4: All Gold Canyon

A bit of an outlier in this anthology; there’s no audience component like the first three, nor any moments of levity. It’s a quiet, contemplative tale demonstrating the best that Delbonnel has to offer as a DP (when the Coens can’t have Deakins, their backup is pretty strong). Humans pierce a serene piece of nature, bringing violence into a peaceful meadow, prizing only greed and selfishness. But the omnipresence of the owl reminds us that humans are just one living species on a planet that will survive everything and nothing. 

Chapter 5: The Gal Who Got Rattled

The longest chapter by far, but one that feels mostly like misdirection. What feels like a love story is really just an excuse for one of the leads to be a red herring. One could draw a parallel between the self-destructive, tragic ending and modern-day gun violence in America, but that seems a little glib for what is a more lyrical, poetic short film. The dialogue is sharp, period-specific, and beautifully mature, which contrasts with the harsh realities of a wagon train lifestyle. And however much or little you’re affected by the narrative, it’s hard to deny the excellence of the two performances: Kazan reaches back to her MEEK’S CUTOFF days to do some career-best work, and the much-less-well-known Bill Heck is a reserved, steady treat. 

Chapter 6: The Mortal Remains

A bit of a sour way to end the proceedings; it’s almost the opposite of Chapter 5 in that it’s all metaphor with little specificity. Furthermore, the execution is, in a rare misstep for the Coens, lacking — the dialogue feels dulled and patchy, and the performances almost all misjudged. It’s all about storytelling, and how stories (movies?) can distract us in the brief moments we have while we’re alive. Sometimes they entertain, sometimes they bore, and sometimes they enlighten or make us weep. That’s all fine, but couched in this lugubrious coach ride which might as well be across The River Styx, it all feels preachy and not particularly unique. 

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