This week I have four entries I missed last year- two westerns, an Oscar nominee for animated film and a teen drama that makes a play for more serious consideration. If all goes right, there will be just two more entries left fo finish off the films of 2018.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS * * * 1/2 (Dir. Jacques Audiard)
Writer-director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) chose some rather interesting material for his English-language debut- a darkly comic historical novel by Patrick deWitt, which he co-adapted into an atypical western designed as a showcase for its rich cast of character actors, but also turns out to be an offbeat buddy movie/violent shootout/black comedy. It starts off at a meandering, slow pace but becomes more involving as the story develops, eventually morphing into several things at once, one of them a bleak look at the nature of inherited violence in emotionally damaged men. You wouldn’t expect so many tonal shifts out of a modern western (so few of them get made these days), especially one that stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hitmen brothers out to finish a job during the California Gold Rush of the 1850’s. But the plot’s not that important, as anything you might predict turns out to be something a bit different, even with all the shadings of the old-fashioned western still percolating on the fringes. Audiard isn’t trying to reinvent the genre so much as put his own French spin on it, which he does with a splendidly jovial tone (and score by Alexandre Desplat) with spurts of violence, family melodrama and a genial sense of humor- the movie actually gets more entertaining as it goes on, when you stop trying to figure out where it’s going and let the characters lead you there with blinders on. Once you surrender to the very specific treats this film has to offer, it’s a singular delight.
THE HATE U GIVE * * 1/2 (Dir. George Tillman Jr.)
20-year-old Amandla Stenberg is a big talent, an appealing newcomer who carries this heavy-handed drama from George Tillman Jr. (based on the young adult novel by Audrey Wells) through most of its melodramatic handwringing, which is unfortunate, since the subject matter is so important and the movie itself so timely. Stenberg is Starr, a 16-year-old who lives in the rough neighborhood of Garden Heights, plagued by gang violence and drug dealing. Her father is an ex-con himself who has to give his kids the “talk” at 10 years old- the one about how to deal with police as a black citizen when you’re inevitably pulled over. Starr’s mother sends her to Williamsen Prep, a private, mostly white high school in a different neighborhood in order to protect her, forcing Starr to navigate life as two versions of herself- the one at school with her white friends and boyfriend (Riverdale’s KJ Apa) and the one at home with her black friends, family and omnipresent threat from gangs and cops. The first half of the film deals with these issues very succinctly, as the way Starr maneuvers through the two worlds illuminates what passes for normal life if you’re a teenager and person of color just trying to fit in. Then a tragedy occurs as Starr becomes the witness when her childhood friend Khalil is killed by a police officer when the two are pulled over, causing her worlds to collide. The movie presses hard on the issue of unarmed black men being gunned down by law enforcement, who often face no justice when a grand jury chooses not to indict, or even when cops are found not guilty in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary. Tillman Jr. deserves credit for not stepping away from the inflammatory topic and confronting the issues it brings up directly (especially in a film aimed at a teen audience), but the movie becomes bogged down with too many contrived incidents, as Starr’s family is pursued by the King Lords, a gang with ties to her father, leading to several clumsily directed scenes that tip from earnest to overwrought. Authentic emotion and outrage mix with histrionics that are the trappings of nearly all material wrung from young adult novels, overshadowing and weighing down the film’s social relevance.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS * * * (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Anthology films are inevitably, hit and miss. They’re almost designed that way, as a movie comprised of six shorts aren’t usually all of a director’s best work (especially if they’re all from the same writer-director, as this one is). As such, the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mostly charming entertainment, a play on classic western tropes in the same way much of their past work can be defined as a play on other genres, like the screwball comedy, film noir, gangster movie, etc. But with their own, unmistakable Coen flavor of course. In this film, many Coen collaborators, along with some new faces, show up to play a part in a western short story- from Tim Blake Nelson as a singing gunslinger, to James Franco as an unlucky bankrobber, to Tom Waits as a crazed prospector. My favorite is the longest, the fourth in a series of six vignettes set in the Old West, starring Zoe Kazan as a naive Oregon Trail traveler who navigates an unbearably polite and practical courtship of a cowboy guide (Bill Heck). Each short offers its own amusements, whether it’s in the reliably quirky and darkly comic Coen dialogue, the gorgeous cinematography shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis, Darkest Hour) all over the American southwest, to the original music and authentic costumes. You can see nods to every myth of the American Wild West, from what we’ve read in stories to what we’ve seen in classic westerns like Stagecoach and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Not everything is gold however (the Franco short in particular is rather pointless, and Liam Neeson’s huckster taking advantage of a handicapped man as a sideshow attraction takes too long to get to its payoff), but what is here is done with such artistry and affection for its source inspiration that it makes for a fond, enjoyable diversion.
MIRAI * * * (Dir. Mamoru Hosoda)
Mirai, or Mirai of the Future, is a loving, magical realist look at the impact a newborn baby has on a family’s life. Toddler Kun is profoundly affected by the birth of his sister Mirai, and the changes it wreaks on the household, as he loses the constant attention of his parents. As a result he fashions a fantasy world in the courtyard of the family home, where he meets the grown version of his sister, the human version of his dog Yukko, and other relatives at different stages of their lives, both living and dead. Each of them has a lesson to teach him about growing up and learning to accept the changes life brings, and though nothing about the message of this film is particularly new or enlightening, the beautiful images of the handrawn animation still enchant, since this is a style most U.S. studios have completely given up on and that Japan still does so well. Especially memorable is the extended climactic sequence that sees Kun lost in his own mind and trapped in the word of runaway children, an expansive and intimidating Tokyo that would scare the pants off any kid who contemplates running away from home. The scene extends to the exploration of a literal family tree that Kun falls into, given a chance to see the past, present and future of his family all at once. The imagination displayed in these scenes are the unforgettable parts of the movie, the parts that make it stand alone among the great scenes in animation this year.