Yes, I’m still catching up on the movies from last year, and I’m going to try to get several of these review round-ups out this month (I still have to make my top ten!). So here’s part one:
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE * (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
I hate to use the term “pretentious arthouse drivel,” thinking it’s a (mostly) unfair way to disparage well-intentioned, innovative filmmakers who are trying to do something different than your usual cliched storytelling, but in some cases, that is entirely what comes to mind and I just can’t shake it. Lynne Ramsey, who garnered a lot of attention for 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, is back with a story about a traumatized veteran who finds missing girls and hurts the bad guys who kidnap them, but this time falls into a conspiracy surrounding the particular kidnapping of the daughter of a state senator. Sounds like a fairly basic revenge action plot, right? Well it is, but this movie is not about the plot. It’s also not about the the acting, the characters, or the dialogue. What it is is an excuse to string together some well lit scenes that add up to virtually nothing while Joaquin Phoenix struggles to hold together this flat, emotionless, cypher of a movie that has no interest in engaging the audience on even the most minimal storytelling level. People stare off into the distance, mumble their dialogue (I had no idea what was happening or being said in a crucial death scene) and move aimlessly from one scene to the next with no throughline to carry any semblance of story to a conclusion or involve us, the audience, in what’s taking place onscreen. Like I said, there are some well lit, nicely staged shots here, like an underwater burial/suicide attempt, yet no single scene holds any significance or meaning- this is all just one long, hollow attempt at “artfulness” for its own sake, making it impossible to care about anything or anyone in this film. Skip it if you value your time.
FIRST MAN * * * 1/2 (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
The moon landing is one of those seminal events in history that feels inevitable. Of course that happened, and of course we walked on the moon. And then we eventually lost interest in space flight and exploration, NASA funding decreased and now those long ago ideals espoused by President Kennedy are nothing but the goals of another, more optimistic time. But it’s easy to forget how uncertain it all was, and how the moon landing in reality was anything but inevitable, encompassing the deaths of multiple men in the years leading up to Apollo 11. Damien Chazelle’s ambitious biopic of Neil Armstrong and that crucial mission takes all of this seriously and soberly, as it documents Neil’s evergreen professionalism and impenetrable facade as he prepares for the moonshot in the years following the death of his three-year-old daughter. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong, but is a bit too boyish and young seeming for the role- even at the right age, he doesn’t quite convey the weight or depth of experience needed to embody Armstrong’s sturdiness, and I couldn’t help but wish that Jason Clarke, who plays fellow astronaut and Neil’s friend Ed White, had been cast as the lead instead. In spite of this however, First Man feels like an intimate epic, a realistic docudrama recalling the dangers and trials of each and every test run, with Claire Foy stellar in support as Janet Armstrong, who in contrast to Gosling, disappears into the part and is entirely convincing as a 1960’s housewife married to an inscrutable man and left to mind the family while he ascends further and further away from them. After showing such talent and potential with Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle partners once more with composer Justin Hurwitz (whose majestic score is easily the year’s most memorable) to create what is his most complete and fully realized film, with the moon landing itself an incredible climactic sequence filled with breathtaking visual splendor and existential awe. Chazelle sees this as a celebratory moment for all of humanity, rather than simply an American one, and he has made a grounded yet soaring, very humane movie to document that spectacular feat, and all the promise it once held.
BURNING * * * 1/2 (Dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is the cinematic equivalent of an autostereogram whose image never quite emerges. It’s elliptical, vague and prone to many meanings and interpretations, not that you can ever piece together the puzzle in a way that fits exactly. For all we know, there are no answers to this riddle. Lee Jong-su, a young man and aspiring novelist in South Korea, happens to meet a free spirited young woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) by chance one day, and falls into a vaguely romantic relationship with her until she brings home another man she met on a trip to Africa. He’s Ben, played by Steven Yeun and compared by Jong-su to Jay Gatsby, a mysteriously rich patron who finds Jong-su and Hae-mi “interesting,” from far above his perch in the upper class elite. The dynamic between the three of them is complicated and appears to be evolving, but just when you think this is a kind of Jules and Jim-esque triangle, the plot flips on its head and now we’re in a Hitchcockian thriller. Or are we? The fascinating thing about Burning is the experience of the film after it’s over. To give yourself to it fully you need to be able to dissect what you’ve seen in retrospect, really pay attention to what might have been hinted at in the slow, methodic burn of the first half, and then second guess seemingly bizarre moments from later on that may not have meant what they did at first glance. Is anything straightforward or objective in this dreamlike mystery of reality? I have my theories. You will undoubtedly have yours. Chang-dong films masterfully in haunting sequences that elude your grasp as you start to lose yourself in the possible meanings, while subtly portraying the seeds of discontent and class resentment in South Korean society. Steven Yeun in particular is captivating as the mysterious Ben, whose charisma and presence confounds Jong-su and Hae-mi for good reason. The title is apt for the questions and symbolism left unanswered by the film, and possibly unanswerable. But it is mesmerizing, all the same.
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET * * 1/2 (Dir. Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)
I always thought the world created in 2011’s Wreck-it Ralph lent itself to potentially endless sequels, by introducing us to a universe of video game arcade characters that live and hang out in a kind of city behind the scenes at night when the machines are closed down, like the toys in Toy Story. It seemed like there could be limitless possibilities for characters to meet and stories to tell in that world. I didn’t imagine that the creative team would instead decided to make a sequel about Ralph’s creepily obsessive and possessive relationship with Vanellope that would border on abusive if they hadn’t significantly altered aspects of the character that we met in the first film, but apparently that was the story they really wanted to tell. In theory, it could be interesting. Ralph in the first movie was a mean loner with anger issues who hates being the villain of his game and wants a friend, which finally happens when he and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the best racer of the Sugar Rush game, bond, but in this movie they’ve become inseparable and his overt neediness and insecurity bind him to her so much that he wants to crush her dreams of leaving her game and finding a life somewhere else (in this case, the world of online gaming with more varied and unpredictable races for her to run). Ralph (still played by John C. Reilly) has become noticeably dumber in this film, likely to hide the fact that if his defining character trait was still anger and temper tantrums, his obsession with Vanellope would be considerably more disturbing. But this is a kids movie (a Disney one at that) and that was always going to be the case, so why then was the weirdly unhealthy relationship between these two the central focus of this film to begin with? I think the writers and directors wanted to tell a more complex story (in lieu of having a standard villain for example), but the more adult oriented themes they’re trying to insert don’t mesh well with the fundamental jokey innocence of the world these movies are set in. On the surface level, the plot involves Ralph and Vanellope going into the internet to find a part for her broken arcade game, but the references and jokes pulled from this setting are pretty lame, and the much hyped Disney princess scene feels like an odd mockery of Disney’s past, at its own expense (really, Disney? You’re going to diss your own properties like that?). It also can’t go into the real dark side of the internet, as the nasty comments Ralph finds about himself are the mildest imaginable, and a forage into the Dark Web reveals only mean viruses rather than, you know, the illegal criminal activity that really goes on in the dark web. But again, it’s a Disney kids movie, which begs the question, why go near this stuff to begin with? This movie was about half the movie it wanted to be, but with no possibility that it would have ever been allowed to be more than that. So why make it at all?
THE FAVOURITE * * 1/2 (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Favourite is a dark, nasty, mean little period piece about Queen Anne (who sat on the English throne in the early 18th century) and the women who battled each other (quite literally) for her favor. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are the rival ladies-in-waiting, distant cousins who play every angle they can in order to survive in the harsh, cold world of the late 1600’s/early 1700’s, a place unkind to most people, but especially cruel to women, who are used, raped, tossed aside and thrown around at every turn. Stone is Abigail, a former member of the nobility who was sold into servitude by her father to pay his debts and will now do anything to crawl her way back up, befriending and even seducing the monarch by any means necessary. Weisz is Sarah, the lifelong friend and lover of Anne, who manipulates, controls and babysits the childish Queen, while using her position as the royal favorite and wife of a general, Lord Marlborough, to essentially rule the country and make political decisions. Yorgos Lanthimos, who made The Lobster, directs this backbiting chamber drama with a rabidly unsentimental eye and a frank, cruel touch, with not a single character worth rooting for as they go about the business of seduction and maneuvering their way into power. You feel the stakes are high, with the dangers of being outside the hand of power spelled out in the candid, brutal reality of life as an unmarried, poor woman at the mercy of men, but the savage cruelty and humiliation on display makes for an uncomfortable experience rather than a darkly comedic one at times. The splendid costumes and production design are top notch and the tour de force performances from all three leads, Stone, Weisz and Coleman make for a sight to behold, but the sour note struck by the tone isn’t exactly enjoyable to sit through. It’s an admirably made, wonderfully acted, cleverly written film, but one that is very hard to like, and made me feel a bit turned off.
ROMA * * * * (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
When Alfonso Cuaron decided to go back to his home country to make a personal, intimate film after the success of the big budget Hollywood sci-fi Gravity, few could have predicted he would turn out the most poetic film of his career, a towering achievement in filmmaking that stands on par with the masterworks of Fellini and Bergman, like Amarcord or Fanny and Alexander. This is a personal, intimate movie with the look and feel of an epic, shot in breathtaking black and white (Cuaron did the cinematography himself) and filmed through the lens of nostalgic memory, a love letter to the women who raised him as child in early 1970’s Mexico. 25-year-old Yalitza Aparicio, in her screen debut, plays Cleo, who works as a live-in housemaid and nanny to an upper middle class family with four children. Her experiences in this house play out as the wonderment of minutia, covering a year in the life of a woman who has a loving relationship with this family, yet the class differences between herself, her fellow maid and her employers are starkly illustrated through subtle interactions of human behavior. You might mistake this look at life in Mexico at a certain time for a kind of neorealist approach, but Cuaron is far too much of a stylistic showman for that, filming in his signature long takes and steady camerawork, following over ever expansive locations, capturing the richness of life and filling the screen with details to consume multiple viewings as you let this miraculous experience wash over you. There are sequences in this movie that are unforgettable, from a meticulously staged riot as seen through an upper floor department store window, to a stunning rescue of children lost in the too strong waves of a low tide, to the topping of his own previous graphic childbirth scene from Children of Men in a tragic incident that marks a turning point in Cleo’s young life. The stunning filmmaking aside, Roma exists as a powerful tribute to a woman overlooked by society, a woman whose existence as a servant in the home of a well off family is one of thousands in Mexican and Latin American society, the anonymous women who come from indigenous villages for the chance to work in these homes in exchange for room and board, and are never paid more than a moment’s notice. Cuaron took notice however, and this is his testimonial to the maid he grew up with, as well as to his mother and grandmother, who had to step up and do the work of raising and supporting the family after being abandoned by his father. Cleo faces her own abandonment by a selfish, cruel man and must face the consequences alone, though the family once more bands together to support her in the way they know how. Long after this experience is over, it’s Cleo’s face that haunts your memory, as these childhood memories haunt Cuaron, her silent suffering, dignity and perseverance a searing endorsement of the power of love in all its forms.