So here are the stragglers of 2018, the movies I saw very late but nonetheless caught up with and finally had an opinion about. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t exactly a stellar bunch. My favorite is probably Creed II, which is a very satisfying entry in the ongoing Rocky series, but for fans only of course. But with these, I finish off 2018 for good and now it’s onto this year. In a couple of months I will have hopefully seen enough new stuff to be able to post the first batch of 2019.
CREED II * * * (Dir. Steven Caple, Jr.)
If you’re a longtime fan of the five-decade old Rocky franchise, there’s a certain nostalgic comfort to the formula. There has to be a big fight of course (sometimes succeeding a big loss) and an overcoming of obstacles, likely to be the attitude problem, the “what are you fighting for” question that has to be answered before getting in the ring. But within this consistent framework, you grew familiar with the characters over time, you grew accustomed to checking in on Rocky, Adrian, Apollo, Paulie, etc. And you grew to enjoy even the lesser sequels that still had their fun and left indelible cultural imprints, like Mr. T, “Eye of the Tiger” and the evil Ivan Drago. When the franchise was resuscitated by Ryan Coogler with 2015’s Creed, he reinvented it by making the new protagonist Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis, but part of the reason it was so successful was because it was clearly made with the affection of a longtime fan of the series. The relationship between Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) and Rocky was drawn with respect for the history of these characters and the emotional undercurrents that made them feel like old friends- Rocky getting to know and train the son of his late pal Apollo doesn’t feel far-fetched, it feels like a natural development. Ryan Coogler is gone in this sequel, but it’s co-written by someone with an equal understanding of what makes the series work, and he better, since it was his baby in the first place. Sylvester Stallone returns to co-star but also to co-write, and this time the movie ties back to the events of Rocky IV, with the return of Dolph Lundgren as Drago, now with a son of his own who wants to fight Adonis and revive the bad blood between the two after Apollo’s death in that fourth movie. Despite the predictability of the story and the familiar beats it follows, the likability of Adonis, Rocky, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and the surprising humanization of the Dragos harkens back to the familial relationships of the original series and feels right at home as a solid sequel in the franchise. You feel for these characters and care about their lives- the history and the connections between them all gives an added weight to the legacy of the series, as the promises of the late characters live on in their progeny. It’s an unexpected family feeling.
VOX LUX * * (Dir. Brady Corbet)
Natalie Portman appears lately to be specializing in women suffering from a deteriorating mental capacity. Roles in Black Swan, Jackie and Annihilation have added to this impression, and her latest is Vox Lux, a dark pseudo fairy tale about a seemingly demented pop star. But before we even get to her, the star of the movie is Rafferty Cassidy, playing her young self, as 14-year-old Celeste from Staten Island becomes a victim of a horrific school shooting in the year 2000. She suffers a spinal injury as a result and is inspired to write a ballad, which becomes a hit and sets her on a path to teen stardom and the corruption that goes with it. Writer-director Brady Corbet thinks he’s fashioned a sort of twisted fantasy, complete with extensive narration by Willem Dafoe, recalling some cinematic tricks ala Wes Anderson, but this movie suffers from no small dose of pretentiousness. With Celeste’s rise and increasingly narcissistic personality disorder meant to mirror the nation’s loss of innocence (school shootings and 9/11 apparently), the movie is as empty as it is unpleasant. Once Natalie Portman takes over as adult Celeste (with Cassidy now playing her teenage daughter), it becomes more entertaining, simply because watching Portman take on this demonic spoiled brat of a character is so different to anything else she’s done and she captures your attention due to her commitment to the role, but the end of this film has you asking what the point of its existence was.
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD * * (Dir. Peter Jackson)
Peter Jackson’s unusual film is a paean to the bravery of WWI soldiers, but the central conceit is an effect that renders the film no more effective than a typical documentary episode of the History Channel. The movie sets up a chronological timeline following newsreel footage of British soldiers during the war, as we see them in grainy black and white, being trained and waving at the camera in good spirits. Accompanying this footage are the voices meant to be those of Great War veterans as they describe what it was like to be recruited, trained and then sent into battle. The horrors of gas and trench warfare are recalled in wrenching detail, as Peter Jackson alters the newsreel footage to colorize the soldiers, widen the aspect ratio and administer close-ups in an attempt to bring these long preserved images to life, and in essence, bring these WWI troops back from the dead. There are occasional moments of eery realism, but the effect of this process is not to render these images realistic, but mostly uncanny. It doesn’t do much for the re-evaluation of events, as Jackson also weaves in period advertising, photography and drawings from what appear to be textbooks over descriptions of bloody battles. Despite an admirable effort to enhance the result, this is still a stock footage film with a narrative familiarity that doesn’t enlighten one much in the way of WWI history.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS * * (Dir. Rob Marshall)
Mary Poppins Returns is a very strange movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie work so hard at recreating and replicating the success of a classic film, while changing just enough of the details to fool the audience into thinking it’s watching a new movie entirely, when all it is is an exercise in the worst kind of nostalgia, made even more offensive by the amount of effort put into it. The original 1964 Mary Poppins is of course, one of Disney’s biggest classics, and in an attempt to recapture the magic of that film (which was a musical made in a completely different era from today, with a feeling that cannot be duplicated outside of its own time), Rob Marshall and his team have put an enormous amount of work into redoing every single significant scene and story beat of that movie, but this time with an entirely new score, new songs, new choreography and new actors. For example, cleaning up the nursery now becomes getting the kids to take a bath. The tea party on the ceiling becomes a visit to Mary’s witch cousin (Meryl Streep) whose house turns upside down. The chimney sweep song and dance is now the lamplighter’s song and dance. The trip into the cartoon sidewalk drawing is now jumping into a painted bowl (still cartoon). If you know the old movie as well as I do, there’s something so bizarre about watching all of this unfold at the exact same point in the script as it did in the old film, but this time with a new song to serve the same purpose of the old scene. It’s like rewriting the dialogue for every scene of an old screenplay. There’s a lot of work that went into this production- the music, the costumes, the set design, the dance numbers. Why not put this work into a new story? Disney’s obsession with turning a buck off their old classics has been pure, cheap cynicism for a while now (see what they’re doing to all of their live action remakes of the animated films), but this is the first one that shows me they do have the ability to make something skillful, recruit some big talent, come up with some really huge production numbers (these kinds of musicals aren’t made anymore, which makes this movie stand out solely for that reason), tell a fairly traditional yet satisfying story, and an absolute refusal to do it in the service of something, anything new. Seeing all of that on display for the first time from them was a revelation of a different sort. This movie made me angry.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX * * * (Dir. Mimi Leder)
Mimi Leder’s glossy biopic of young Ruth Bader Ginsburg focuses on her rise at Harvard in the 1950’s as one of the few women to go to law school at the time, and then squarely on her establishing her place in the 1970’s as a crusading lawyer for landmark sex discrimination cases brought before the Supreme Court. As commercial and somewhat formulaic as the script may be occasionally, this is a well paced, well acted, entertaining look at the remarkable life of one of America’s foremost feminist heroes. Felicity Jones is Ginsburg, and okay, her accent may be all over the place, but she still embodies Ruth as a young, fierce, determined woman eager to find her place in the world, even if it takes her a little longer to get there then she’d like. But, as the movie tells us, the times sometimes have to catch up to the people who are ready for them. Armie Hammer is very appealing as the world’s greatest husband, Marty Ginsburg, a man who supports his wife at every turn in her career, taking a backseat to her time in the spotlight in spite of his own successful career as a tax attorney, and staying home to cook and take care of the kids with all the eagerness men reserve for their own work (if only we could all be so lucky). The portrayal of the Ginsburg’s idyllic marriage, as they triumph through school and Marty’s recurring bouts with cancer, are the more inspirational for being true, and the details, politics and legal fight over Ruth’s landmark sex discrimination case involving a man denied tax benefits for being a caregiver is at least as educational and representative of the time as anything you’ll hear today. The screenplay can be obvious at points (the cliches that come out of Ruth’s teenage daughter’s mouth are eye-roll worthy), but the story is compelling and told well enough to be worth your time. Sometimes crowdpleasers get you in spite of yourself, and this one got me.
STAN & OLLIE * * * (Dir. Jon S. Baird)
I’m not sure how much people know about Laurel & Hardy these days. If the silent era of movies is being forgotten, this iconic duo is listed right alongside Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc. as the greatest early comedians in film, but how many know of them or what they could do? If you don’t, I’m not sure that Stan & Ollie is the best introduction, to be honest. This love letter to the men who played Laurel & Hardy onscreen depends on at least some familiarity with their routines, and perhaps even their offscreen relationship. As such, it may be more rewarding for movie buffs and Old Hollywood acolytes, but as one of those myself I found it a lovely, sweet tribute to the friendship of these two men. From a screenplay by Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan’s co-writer on Philomena, and who considers the duo his heroes, this film chronicles their last tour together in 1953, way past the height of their fame, when they traveled the UK to sold-out audiences in an attempt to raise funds for a movie that would never be produced. John C. Reilly plays Oliver “Babe” Hardy, and Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel, both in superb characterizations of the two stars that embody them completely, leaving nothing you know of the actors themselves, just Laurel & Hardy as they were (or seemed to be). Recreating many of the routines onstage in excellent mimicry, they also portray a tender, loving friendship between Stan and Ollie which, at this point in their lives is close to thirty years old. It feels like an intimate, fully realized relationship, and even if the stakes in the film are quite low and the conflict nonexistent, as a nostalgic tribute it can’t help but be affecting. If it drives interest in seeking out Laurel & Hardy’s work (I want to see more of them myself now), that alone will have justified its existence.