Here we are again, with the next batch of reviews for films that came out in 2018. I should be dropping about three more of these before the Oscars next month, so that I can finally produce my long-delayed top ten list before the ceremony. I’m a late critic, I know, but I like to try to see all that I can before officially ranking them. This was a mixed group, with some great choices, as well as some iffy ones. But I had quite a bit to say about each of them.
THE RIDER * * * 1/2 (Dir. Chloe Zhao)
Chloe Zhao’s poetic western about a wounded rodeo cowboy is a graceful, meditative, forlorn look at life on the barren prairies of South Dakota, where one’s dreams are limited to the world around you, however much of it you can grasp for yourself. Using non-actors for the characters gives this film a realistic, near documentary feeling, while the atmosphere of the midwest washes over you as Brady Blackburn, who lives in poverty with his father and mentally handicapped sister, struggles to find a reason to go on after a life-threatening injury takes his horse-riding ability away from him. Brady’s entire identity is wrapped up in being a champion bronc rider, as he never finished high school and has no other ambitions or talents, just the thrill of the wind in his face as he rides over the vast wastelands of Dakota territory and excels every day at the rodeo. After a severe brain injury prevents him from taking the saddle ever again, he must get used to life without the thing that keeps him going, the only dream or desire he’s ever had. Zhao used the real life Jandreau family to portray the Blackburn family in this film, which probably made it easier for them to channel that familial rapport for the camera, while using other non-actors as fellow rodeo riders and cowboys, including Lane Scott, a bull rider who was permanently immobilized after an even worse brain injury than Brady’s. At such a young age, the desolation of having no future weighs heavily on Brady as he loses the only use for his life as he sees it, and after spending the film immersed in the world he lives in, you can’t help but understand the hopelessness of his perspective. The beauty of the land is no substitute for the promise of a future that holds some possibility. The humanity displayed in this film make it possible to empathize with those you don’t often see or hear about, as you contemplate how many must survive on the barest morsels of a dream.
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? * * * 1/2 (Dir. Marielle Heller)
Lee Israel is a middle-aged, misanthropic, alcoholic, overweight lesbian, a once successful biographer who’s fallen on hard times and doesn’t possess the social etiquette or the desire to make the most of her literary connections to get back on top. As I write that description I realize how rare it is for women to get to play roles like this, the kind of typical male crank that stars like Jack Nicholson specialized in. But in Marielle Heller’s version of the book Lee Israel wrote about her life, Melissa McCarthy knocks it out of the park as she expands her comedic talent with a part that requires her to stretch into more dramatic territory. When Israel was flat broke with no book prospects on the horizon in 1991, she took to forging letters from famous writers and selling them to various memorabilia dealers around New York City, a stunt that landed her in legal trouble eventually, but gave her a thrill as she stoked the fires that illegal activity arouses in the lifelong law abiding citizen. This is a movie that’s less about her little scheme itself though, and more of a character study, as Lee’s foray into forgery emphasizes her penchant for alienating those around her, except for her friend Jack Hock (a delightfully caustic Richard E. Grant), a fellow former writer turned drinking buddy, who gleefully colludes with her growing literary racket. Their scenes together sparkle with a witty back and forth brought about by a sharp script, one that pierces the depths of this character through insights into the various personality quirks, miserly tendencies and self-destructive traits Lee possesses, the very factors that make her such an observant writer and talented impersonator. When she works on it, that is. With all the effort she out into this crime, I couldn’t help but think she could have easily written a whole satirical book full of fake letters in the voices of celebrities, one that would have probably sold pretty well. But that’s not Lee’s plight, is it? She doesn’t much fit in to the world, and she doesn’t want to. She’s happier on the outside looking in. Well, maybe not happier. But something.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY * * (Dir. Bryan Singer)
The long-awaited Freddie Mercury biopic got made at last after all these years, following a troubled production that saw its embattled and accused director Bryan Singer fired after completing about 3/4’s of the film, and the movie that finally arrived is a by the numbers, greatest hits caricature documenting the rise of Queen in the most superficial way possible, led by Rami Malek as Mercury, struggling through the barrier of a distracting prosthetic dental piece. Bohemian Rhapsody is surprisingly amateurish in its direction, speeding through Queen’s rise like a made for VH1 TV movie- Freddie meets the band in the second scene, becomes lead singer in the third, suddenly they’re on the charts in the fourth, and we’re off to the races! Most of this movie is one montage after another, set to Queen’s music, as the band goes on tour and produces their hits, Freddie leading the way in flamboyant costumes and mannered acting, while the rest of the guys are paper-thin cardboard cutouts in 1970’s wigs. Freddie’s homosexuality is lightly touched on, as the movie prefers to spend more time on his ill-fated relationship with lifelong friend Mary Austin (Sing Street’s Lucy Boynton), and then he loses himself to various sojourns through leather bars in the early 80’s (set to another montage of course), as presumably we’re supposed to imagine this is when he contracted HIV. The whole movie is so cartoonish that Malek’s cartoonish portrayal isn’t out of place, but neither does it constitute good acting, as there’s not one note of authenticity in any frame of this film. However Queen rose to the top, I can pretty much guarantee it was nothing like this. If this movie is remembered for anything, it’s likely to be the recreation of the 1985 Live Aid concert at the end, which is nearly a shot for shot remake, and a sequence that lasts over 20 minutes (only cutting one song from the actual set), but even that is chopped up by Singer’s shoddy direction, which cuts too many times to people in the crowd watching in awe as their eyes well up. Come on. Nevertheless, ending the movie on twenty minutes of one of Freddie Mercury’s greatest performances (Malek lip syncs to the real thing) leaves the audience on a massive high coming out of the theater, which has to be the explanation for the incredible success of this laughable, strikingly bad film. Freddie deserved better.
GREEN BOOK * * 1/2 (Dir. Peter Farrelly)
There’s a certain kind of movie about race relations in America that keeps being made, and that’s for a reason. It’s the movie about a casually racist, but ultimately goodhearted white person who falls for the equally goodhearted black person, and through each other’s differences, they come to understand each other, respect each other, even love each other. We’ve seen it in the 1960’s classics starring Sidney Poitier, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we saw it in 1989’s Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy, and we see it here again in Green Book, a film so old-fashioned in its sensibilities and its values, that not only is it set in 1962, but it could have very easily come out in that same year. All this isn’t to say that this kind of movie doesn’t have its pleasures, not least of which is the acting of the two leads, Viggo Mortensen as the casually racist Italian New Yorker hired to be the driver to Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley, a closeted gay, black musician going on a tour of the Deep South. The two men are superb in this movie, bringing life into their characters and burgeoning friendship, so much so that they make you want to buy into it, even when you know you’re being manipulated by the familiar storytelling screws of this kind of road trip buddy movie. But I think the biggest issue with these kinds of stories are the perspectives from which they’re told. Despite the fact that Don Shirley is the eccentric genius and troubled soul of this narrative, for some reason this is the point of view of his driver, Tony Vallelonga, and how he learned to appreciate and respect the man he worked for. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I think it should, because the thing is, we already know Tony’s point of view. We know it because we’ve seen and heard it all before. It was Rod Steiger’s and Spencer Tracy’s point of view in the 1960’s, it was Jessica Tandy’s point of view in the 1980’s, and now it’s Viggo Mortenson’s, but if there’s another thing this movie shows us, it’s that that point of view, that of the defensive, goodhearted white person who learns to love a “good” black person, it’s that it has not changed one bit in the last 50 years. The things that come out of Vallelonga’s mouth when he gets into an argument about race with Don Shirley are the words you hear from Trump supporters today on the same topic. We’ve heard it all before and the only insight to be gained from stories (even true ones) like these, especially about racism, are from the perspectives of the characters who experienced and lived it. Ali is fantastic as the elusive and somewhat tragic Don Shirley and for what familiar, basic comfort it provides to a mainstream audience, the story of this friendship and this journey should have been his.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK * * * 1/2 (Dir. Barry Jenkins)
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel could not have asked for a more faithful treatment, as Barry Jenkins, in his first film since Moonlight, takes great pains to visually convey every bit of the richness that is Baldwin’s words. Just about every single page is on the screen here, as the delicate and tragic love story of just barely legal Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) plays out in heartbreaking fashion. As a filmmaker, Jenkins cares more about atmosphere and style than plot, but his reverence for Baldwin’s poetry leads him to pair his dialogue and much of the narration (recited by Layne in the film) with his own dreamlike approach to mood and environment. Early 1970’s Harlem is brought to life in rich colors, costumes and a swooning score that places us in the minds of the characters as we fall into their young adult romance as Fonny and Tish’s hopes for a future together seem bright and expansive against the reality of black life in America, at any time. The events that prevent them from reaching those dreams, as modest as they may have been, is a typical story in black America, one that rarely romanticizes or considers the dashed potential and innocence lost to so many, at so young an age. It’s a story of life interrupted, and stagnated, with a will to keep going based on a promise of some unknown fated date that you may never see. But maybe their children will. Or maybe their children will. This beautiful, moving tone poem of a film lovingly details and embraces those hopes, so emblematic of so many people, that stay unfulfilled. But the beauty of life and the power of love to keep going is the grace that Baldwin would have cherished to see brought to life in so loving a manner.
VICE * * 1/2 (Dir. Adam McKay)
If there’s one thing I know about Adam McKay, it’s that he’s never forgiven the Bush administration for the Iraq war, and rightly so. It also seems to be that he blames Dick Cheney for not only that, but every colossal failure and crime of that administration, and for seeking to usurp power and destroy the integrity of the executive branch of our government, and that’s pretty much the message you get out of Vice, the scattershot biopic about the man dubbed Darth Vader himself. But my problem is that’s pretty much all you get. In the first half, McKay films in his jokey, entertaining, half satirical manner as he charts Dick Cheney’s rise from an untalented, unambitious young screw-up to lackey in the halls of the power, as played by Christian Bale (who disappears into the part in his typical chameleonic style). His marriage to wife Lynn is interesting, as an exceptionally good Amy Adams makes her character a Lady Macbeth type whose only pursuit is in securing her own power through marriage to a powerful man and will accept nothing less out of him. As Cheney rises in Republican circles through the ruthlessness and callousness to decency that defines the party, he gains experience but does not possess the charisma of more talented players (even his wife holds a crowd better than he does) to run for the highest office himself. But then the Bushes come calling, and we kinda know the rest, right? I certainly do and had no desire to relive it, as we’re subject to every miserable misstep of the Bush years all over again as Cheney consolidates his power through manipulating W and running the administration himself as vice president, at least in the first term. The problem here though is that McKay rehashes these events with virtually no additional insight or a strong handle on what it is he’s trying to say about them. We remember 9/11, we remember the torture memos, we remember the falsified intelligence leading to the Iraq invasion, we remember Colin Powell’s UN speech, etc. This movie brings each one up again, but to what end? Why did Cheney do these things? What was it that drove him? Was he just an inherently evil man? Was he obsessed with power but terrible at his job, the way he’d been terrible at every job in his career of failing upward through white male privilege? Or was he completely driven (as I suspect, since this was the only thing he ever succeeded at in his disastrous career) by the desire to enrich his former oil company, Halliburton, with every move he ever made once he got in the White House, and was simply in over his head regarding everything else. You have to try to read into it, because McKay certainly doesn’t tell you what he thinks, other than that Cheney is bad. The second half of the movie plays like a lecture on what happened from the years 2001-2005, with occasional forays into satire, but not enough of those for the movie to be one completely. It ends up being an unnecessary recap that had me wondering what the point of it all was.