-Reviews of Roma, On the Basis of Sex, The Mule, The Favourite, At Eternity’s Gate, and Vox Lux
This three week period only features six movies because of how slow the release calendar has been. I’m hoping to have reviews of more awards season contenders up soon.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Gurrero, Veronica Garcia, and Nancy Garcia
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Very rarely does a foreign language film have the type of cache that Roma does heading into awards season, and it has essentially drawn the awe of every critics circle and precursor awards ceremony over the last few weeks. Directed by acclaimed film-maker Alfonso Cuaron of Gravity, Children of Men, and Y tu Mama Tambien fame, as well as being behind arguably the best Harry Potter film, this movie is slowly spilling across the country in limited release and can now also be watched at home on Netflix, as Netflix has begun doing late-year distributions of films like these.
The set-up is in 1970s Mexico City, where our main character Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) serves as a live-in house maid to an upper-class family. She cleans, cooks, and helps raise the children born of a deteriorating marriage, with the doctor-father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) disappearing for several weeks at a time, leaving the mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) to pick up the pieces. Cleo has her own life other than just service, going on dates and accompanying the family on various vacations around the coastline during the movie. Behind the scenes, there is political discord taking root in the form of a black ops military group trained to suppress student demonstrations. Remember, the Cold War looms in Mexico during this time period.
Cuaron, in addition to directing and writing the film largely about his personal upbringing, does his own cinematography as well. He uses a black and white color palette in order to tell a story that’s almost achingly beautiful, occasionally capturing the essence of the city while also using steady camerawork to turn a scene of hosing down the outside patio or making eggs for the kids into something surprisingly special. Good filmmakers have a way of staging small events which engross an audience while also clearly expressing something larger about the time period and societal conflicts of that generation. The societal aspects of the movie rarely take a front seat, yet the income and education disparity are felt pretty consistently throughout the film. One wonders how someone as resourceful as Cleo works only as a house-maid. Yet, at the same time, the film doesn’t denigrate that, it allows her to have a motherly presence with the children and come across as a positive figure in their development.
The atmosphere and lo-fi acting are incredible, and this is among the best shot films of the year, even more amazing when you consider that Cuaron did all of the cinematography himself. I’m sure there are deeper meanings within the shots themselves, but after only seeing the film once, I cannot get into a full dissertation on the deeper meanings conveyed scene to scene. All I can say with certainty is that it’s brilliantly framed and is arguably the best film of the year.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Director: Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay it Forward)
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, and Kathy Bates
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
While On the Basis of Sex ended up being pretty formulaic and similar to other biopics you’ve seen, there was something really wholesome about its production that made it one of my favorite dramatic movies of the year. Outside of some small complaints regarding Felicity Jones’s New York accent occasionally slipping up, this is a really well-acted and well-intentioned film that’s bolstered by two really good central performances.
It’s partly a story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her rise to relevance from within the ACLU, arguing a federal circuit sex discrimination case. It shows her excelling in her law school studies, then shows her teaching as a law professor at Rutgers, and then focuses on the very beginning of her now infamous career as a civil rights lawyer. In addition, however, it’s a story about her marriage, and how her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), who was also an attorney in his own right, also defied gender roles by picking up more of the house-keeping duties and being an openly supportive person of his wife’s goals. While much of this movie is entirely about Ruth and her achievements, it also tells the story of the network that supported her during this critical time of her life.
The movie doesn’t always do the legal material as well as it could in a movie like this, but the charisma of Felicity Jones in developing the arguments, especially at the end of the movie, really works well. I was emotionally affected by the conclusion of this movie and the growing confidence she gains throughout. Maybe every detail isn’t perfect, but by the end, I really felt like they captured the essence of Ruth Ginsburg and her husband.
Director: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, The Outlaw Josie Wales, American Sniper, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, Play Misty for Me, Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers, Honkytonk Man, Heartbreak Ridge, The Bridges of Madison County)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest, and Taissa Farmiga
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%
There was a time where Clint Eastwood was arguably the best director in the film industry, and the selected titles from his filmography listed above will clearly show that. He’s dabbled nicely into war films, with movies like American Sniper and Letters from Iwo Jima, westerns, with titles like Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josie Wales, and has also done traditional drama effectively as well. As an actor, however, he’s experienced a lot more inconsistency and The Mule is his first performance as a lead in a film for several years. As much as I think his career as an actor has had a ton of highs (such as The Man With No Name character through his early western-heavy career), an 88 year old Eastwood cannot really carry a dramatic film in full.
This movie is about a veteran (Eastwood) who struggles with insolvency after his business selling flowers goes under. He begins making money by transporting large amounts of drugs and weapons from Texas up to Illinois. He uses his payments for such long and successful journeys to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding and reconnect with his ex-wife. DEA Agent Bates (Bradley Cooper) is the one investigating the cartel’s new mule.
The directing style for this is very old-fashioned, and it does often feel like the movie is jam-packed with too many subplots relating to his family. Eastwood paints the picture of this person estranged from his ex-wife, daughter, and grand-children, but gives us very little about why that happened. The idea was probably to allow Eastwood’s character to remain likable so we can root for him, yet, it also makes the family seem hyper-dramatic and immature because we have no real reasons as to why they refuse to associate with him. It also makes his lines about how family has to come first fall a bit flat because we don’t really have any dramatic heft in the fractured relationships. The daughter just ignores him petulantly, and the grand-daughter suffers from script writing where she’s supposed to be in her mid-20s but acts like she’s 13 or 14. This happens in movies sometimes where older writers are unable to capture any realism in younger people, and it totally feels that way here. As for Dianne Wiest as his ex-wife, her performance is just brutal. It’s so whiny and annoying.
I guess we’re supposed to take his free-spirit attitude, willingness to go to the cartel, and also multiple scenes of sleeping with younger women at 90 years old as proof that maybe a party-heavy/on-the-road lifestyle was the reason he didn’t take family responsibility seriously enough. Those scenes though, whether it’s him sleeping with younger women or learning not to call people offensive names because of outdated dialect are designed to make him funny, but considering Eastwood’s personal status and also that he’s the director, parts of the movie feel frequently like a personal pat-on-the-back. He’s not acting, he’s just trying to get everyone to applaud the breadth of his career and talk about how impressive and cool he is. Outside of a few scenes involving Bradley Cooper doing police work on the side, this movie was a complete and total misfire. I cringed at scenes that were supposed to be funny and laughed at scenes that were supposed to be dramatic. It was formulaic and pathetic.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth, Killing of a Sacred Deer, Kinetta)
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, and Joe Alwyn
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
The recent surge of public attention on director Yorgos Lanthimos has put him firmly in the conversation of anticipated movies every time he agrees to do a project. After 2015’s huge hit The Lobster, Lanthimos took his already good rapport with Rachel Weisz and began working on this comedic period piece about two women competing for power in the era of Queen Anne. It features really wonderful production design and costumes, and has this dark element and intensity that makes it one of the best films of the year.
Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), stricken with gout and the loss of several children, has become a recluse, and according to the film’s narrative, has no interest in learning about governance or giving real direction to Parliament. Instead, it appears that both parties are constantly battling for her attention, while her assistant (Rachel Weisz, who is married to one of the party leaders) feeds her information and suggestions about how to handle the political issues. Things change, however, when the assistant’s cousin (Emma Stone) comes into the picture, vying for Queen Anne’s attention and striking up political allegiances of her own.
The film really likes to talk about how power is obtained and how bureaucracy works, and it’s not always so subtle about that. The false love the characters show each other only reinforces the obsessiveness that these characters have toward their own social status. However, a movie that could be stuffy and uninteresting (considering the costumes and subject matter), ends up being this dark, funny, and sometimes violent exercise in satire. If this movie is properly consumed as a black comedy, it reveals even more of what has become Lanthimos’s trademark cynicism.
All of the performances, especially the main trio and Nicholas Hoult as a party leader are utterly phenomenal, and Emma Stone goes punch-for-punch with Rachel Weisz, who has had plenty of experience playing the stone-cold baddie of more intelligent films. The whining, constantly upset version of Queen Anne portrayed by Olivia Colman is also one of the year’s most eccentric and interesting performances, as well. By the end of this film, I completely was awed by how complete the attention to detail was, and I don’t really have anything negative to say about this movie.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE
Director: Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls, Basquiat)
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Emmanuele Seigner, and Mads Mikkelsen
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
Speaking of capturing the essence of a character, obviously Willem Dafoe is a bit old to be portraying Vincent Van Gogh, who died at 37, but the movie works to adequately deliver a proper showcase of Van Gogh’s work and style, while also showing the mental deterioration he experienced before his death. Much of the movie is about personal struggle, but much of it is about his artistic vision, and I would say that I really enjoyed the way that At Eternity’s Gate was presented.
It goes through about 10 years of Van Gogh’s life, with him living alongside fellow impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), spending multiple stints in mental asylums, and eventually working his way to being treated with experimental medicine while he lived the rest of his days painting off the land. The lack of success he experienced during his lifetime, and seeing the legacy left behind as he came up with these now famous paintings while living in poverty is something really unique that the film tackles.
It brings you into his mindset really effectively, and there’s this odd camera lens they use to make the landscapes seem vivid and the forefront seem blurry. It’s almost as if they want us to see the world the way Van Gogh did, and then we get moments of him monologuing about acknowledging his struggle with mental health but also his ideas about humanity and faith. It’s all carried by a powerful performance by Willem Dafoe, and the film wouldn’t work at all without the really intricate way the filmmakers tell this story. It’s not going to be the most enjoyable or best film you watch all year, but it has a unique style and makes its substance worthwhile.
Director: Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader)
Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Jennifer Ehle
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 61%
A Star is Born is the way Hollywood glamorizes stardom, where we see a character rise to the top, buy a nice house, and live in an essentially normal capacity other than the unique demands on their time. What Vox Lux does differently is create a story about the way stardom leads people astray, and how an innocent young child can be overly burdened into becoming something that they probably should not be. It’s not always a pretty or easy story to watch, but it presents its own unique style and challenges, and for that, I really respect what this movie contributes to this year’s film canon.
It starts with a horrific school shooting, where a young Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) writes a song about her pain and recovery after being shot in the neck, and it takes off, leading her and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) overseas to record a pop album. Her manager (Jude Law) does a good enough job getting her work, and the career takes off. We see her begin to do the types of things leading to lost innocence.
Then, several years later, Celeste (now Natalie Portman) is planning a comeback after a social meltdown, and now has a daughter of her own (also Cassidy). The film showcases the first stop of her tour for a new record, and there’s a new public shooting, this time with the perpetrators being inspired by her music and costumes.
So, the film partly deals with how art and tragedy often correspond, and how the tragedy in an artist’s personal life also plays a role. Celeste has so much wrong with her by the end of the film, and she’s become so cynical and skewed that the movie shows how celebrity can somehow make someone less human, yet, she’s faced with problems that are very human: influence, legacy, parenthood, etc. While the film (and Portman’s performance) seem grating, and I didn’t love the musical numbers at all, I do think the movie is well-acted and has a lot of interesting things to say. There’s a dramatic sense to the movie that can’t be undercut by poor songs or performance numbers.