From the Archive — Marie Antoinette

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This was originally written for and posted at my former online home. 

There was a lot of suspicious murmuring when the teaser trailer for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette hit. It looked like a period piece, but what was that New Order song doing there? Coppola was announcing that she was going to make a period piece, but she was going to make it her way. If that meant incorporating early 1980s pop songs, so be it. After all, it’s not necessarily more anachronistic that incorporating late 90’s art pop into a film set in the mid 1970’s, or automatically adding an orchestral score to any movie set in any time, for that matter. And if that proved to be the first indicator of a pervasive personal stamp on her film, all the better. If only.

The shortcomings of Coppola’s film are handily illustrated in the lead performance by Kirsten Dunst. Unlike some, I have no immediate problem with Dunst in the role. In fact, if the only Oscar ballot sent in annually was from me, she’d have two nominations by now. In this film, Dunst is quite good in the early going, when the queen-to-be she is portraying is surveying the world she has been ushered into with a childlike hesitancy and confusion. As the history progresses and the role requires greater depth and commitment, Dunst has nothing to give. She’s lost, reciting lines rather than conveying a life. It may not be her fault, as it seems like Coppola herself loses interest when her privileged girl becomes a woman and a ruler. The verve and observation of the earlier scenes slips away and a hopelessly familiar period drama fills the screen.

Coppola does use her pop songs — Gang of Four, The Cure and Adam Ant are among those who’ve had their back catalog raided — but does sparingly. The only stretch in which they feel like an integral part of the film is during a relatively brief wallow in Marie Antoinette’s legendary decadence. Sometimes it truly enriches the film, giving it a rules-free post-modern kick as in the scene in which the dancers at an 18th century French ball spin around as “Hong Kong Garden” from Siouxsie and the Banshees fills the soundtrack, the gothic indulgence and romantic flourishes of the music unexpectedly serving as perfect accompaniment. Other times Coppola undermines her own boldness with woefully literal usage of the songs. The last thing any film needs is shots of stockpiled sweets set to the pounding rhythms of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”

There is a certain wit that flashes in Coppola’s construction, especially as she walks us through the smothering attention Marie Antoinette receives. It’s more convincing when Coppola remains committed to the time and place of the film, refraining from drawing modern parallels such as the unfortunate moment when the notorious comment “Let them eat cake,” is used to set up a clumsy indictment of tabloid culture. Like a lot of period pieces, this film allows ample opportunity to get visually drunk on the art design (we’re convinced of the indulgent nature of this monarchy by the densely designed wallpaper alone) and Coppola as well-served by cinematographer Lance Acord here as she was with Lost in Translation. It’s always pretty to look at, even when Coppola fails to make it interesting to think about.

The film is based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: A Journey, but the journey is precisely what’s missing from Coppola’s film. We get the signposts, but little else of this woman’s life experience. There’s no resonance, just those pop songs echoing fruitlessly in our heads.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Three

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Roma is memory. It is the hard certainty of the testing moments that grind into the senses and the softness of incidents turned into impressions. Alfonso Cuarón has made no secret of the ways in which this drama draws upon his youthful experiences in Mexico, of fractured family and bustling city denizens and the household domestic workers who provided nurturing support. Social unrest buzzes on the borders like a rattling prop plane unseen, hidden by clouds. It is part of the time, but not, informing everything yet having far less import than the day to day childhood skirmishes over toys and snacks. At the heart of the film is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), maid and nanny, part of the family yet disposable employee. She is loved and gives love in return, but the emotional connection can be put aside with heartbreaking ease when a filthy task needs doing or someone wants the relief of directing their welling anger and frustration at another person. The triggering incident isn’t Cleo’s fault, but she is there. And she is, in effect, professionally obligated to accept indignity. Cuarón directs the film with characteristic visual elegance, recreating his homeland as it was nearly a half-century ago. A clear passion project, Cuarón approaches Roma with a film student’s boundless energy and mandatory versatility, directing, writing, producing, editing (with Adam Gough), and serving as the cinematographer. That comes through in the purity of the film’s expression, the unerring sense that it is as close as a collaborative art form can come to being a singular personal statement. It’s as if Cuarón took the very aura of his past and spun it into cinema.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Four

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Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is constructed with an approach that could go drastically wrong so easily, and indeed has many times in the past, even when employed by more seasoned filmmakers. The story focuses on Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a rodeo rider recovering from a nasty head injury. Told by doctors to stay off of horses during the lengthy recovery — and that it would be bad idea to continue participating in bull riding competitions after his healing process is complete — Brady is lost. Rodeos and associate ranch life have defined his existence and provided what little money he’s made.  With few other skills, his path forward is entirely unclear. What place in the world is there for people like Brady after fate renders their sole identified talent as not only unworkable, but an actual danger to them? Written by Zhao, the film is based on Jandreau’s real experiences, going so far as to cast his real family members and friends as Brady Blackburn’s family and friends. What could have been a stunt is instead a feat of cinematic verisimilitude, in large part because Zhao doesn’t simply rely on a documentary-like roughness. Instead, The Rider is lyric and lovely in its quiet creativity, the actual events properly shaped into drama. Zhao never strays from her responsibility to take the fundamental pieces Jandreau has given her and make them something more, giving the film a proper reason for being. The story contained in the film first belongs to Jandreau, and he could — and can — sit down across from someone and share it in his own words, and it would undoubtedly be affecting. And yet it wouldn’t be what has made it to the screen. It’s Jandreau’s story, but by the end it’s clear only Zhao could have made The Rider.

Playing Catch-Up — Bohemian Rhapsody; Birds of Passage; Ralph Breaks the Internet

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Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher, 2018). This biography of Freddie Mercury, concentrating on his time as the frontman of Queen, is almost startling in its ineptitude. Put aside that it treats the basic chronology of the band’s history as jumble of incidents that can be rearranged at will, reduces most of the characters (including the protagonist) to flavorless dopes, and even that it fabricates an extended hiatus in order to inject phony suspense to the famed performance at Live Aid. In its most fundamental narrative mechanics, it is a baffling failure, made with a level of clumsiness that somehow passed through an array of entertainment business gatekeepers. The torturous production history is partially to blame, but no one deserves extra credit for conducting a rescue mission in a leaky boat. Dexter Fletcher is officially uncredited for his efforts as an unexpected understudy to director Bryan Singer, who was fired midway through production. If his name had been put on the posters, he would have been forgiven for traveling theater by theater to cross it off. Rami Malek is no more than a mediocre mimic as Mercury. As with every other part, the wigs, makeup, costume, and other transformative elements account for the majority of the performance.

 

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Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, 2018). Many of the beats in this crime drama are familiar. The novelty of the setting jolts the story away from any narrative weariness. Birds of Passage is sharp and dizzying, lofting its tangled conflicts between drug trade factions to Shakespearean heights. Spanning from the early nineteen-sixties to the cusp of the eighties, the film has a headlong momentum into violent collapse, made yet more fascinating by the cultural particulars shrewdly adding another level of convincing motivation to the treacherous pride and vengeance that practically guarantee a brutal fate. Directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego flash a strong visual sense without sacrificing clarity, even in the handful of moments built around dream logic. The performances are all solid, with an especially strong turn by Carmiña Martínez as the family’s matriarch who’s equal parts spiritual and pragmatic.

 

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Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, 2018). Like its predecessor, Ralph Breaks the Internet leaps joyously into a premise laden with possibilities and then draws surprisingly little inspiration from it find there. This time out, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) brave the World Wide Web in search of a part needed to rescue the latter’s home video game from the scrapheap. There’s fun to be had with the vagaries of online culture, and the film absolutely has some clever bits. It’s telling, though, that the comic highlight is some mischievous tweaking of Disney princess tropes which could have have been mined with justification if Ralph were breaking cinema history, the children’s section of the local library, or, thanks to a nifty parody song with music from none other than Alan Menken, a soundtrack-heavy CD collection. There’s simply not enough rigor to the storytelling. Silverman gives a terrific voice performance as Vanellope, building who emotional journeys into single lines.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Five

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I recently came to realize how short-sighted I’ve been in my admiration for Eighth Grade, the feature directorial debut of Bo Burnham. I marveled at the ability of a single, childless comedian in his mid-twenties to convincingly occupy the headspace of teenaged girl moving through her final days in middle school (and capture the well-meaning fumbling of her supportive father with equal authenticity). First-time filmmakers often hew to their own experiences in shaping subject matter, and the thwarted hopes of young Kayla (Elsie Fisher) seem notably far removed from whatever travails Burnham might have endured. I should know better. A film doesn’t need to be blatantly autobiographical to be personal. Burnham has noted he drew on his own bouts with crippling anxiety in developing Elsie’s story. The truthfulness of the film is often agonizing, but there are marvelous comic undercurrents. And the comedy isn’t at the expense of characters. Burnham isn’t interested in easy mockery, preferring to find the wry and sweetly melancholy humor in the simplest interactions. He doesn’t go easy on the characters, but he’s also no sadist, pushing them into dark territory to jolt the audience. The effectiveness of Eighth Grade is due to the mundane nature of Elsie’s setbacks and triumphs. They carry a tangy familiarity. Burnham accomplishes the paramount goal of any filmmaker: He taps into the universal through his pitch perfect evocation of the specific.

From the Archive — Miller’s Crossing

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There were few actors who could take full command of a film like Albert Finney. Immediately intimidating, Finney was a bull among fawns. But he was also nimble, cunning, authentic, and playful. He didn’t work all that often, yet racked up accolades that he gladly rejected, refusing to be knighted and steadfastly bypassing the Academy Awards, though he was nominated five times. I didn’t review many of Finney’s films over the years (he was far more prolific as an actor before I started trying to express my movie affection in words), but I did write this for the old radio show. This early Coen brothers effort was released within our first few weeks on the air. I believe it represents the first time I tried to pen a full-on rave.

With only two prior films to their credit, Joel and Ethan Coen have already established quite a reputation. Both their first film, Blood Simple, and their follow-up, Raising Arizona, gained them significant critical acclaim. With their latest, Miller’s Crossing, that reputation should only grow, and deservedly so.

In Miller’s Crossing, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, the right hand man to mob boss Leo, played by Albert Finney. As the film progresses, Leo gets into a turf war with Johnny Caspar, played by Jon Polito, which is sparked largely by Caspar’s desire to see a small-time hood named Bernie killed. As the turf war develops, Tom finds himself thrown out of Leo’s organization only to ally himself with Johnny Caspar. We see the conflict and the manipulations through the eyes of Tom as he deals with his involvement with Leo’s moll, the repercussions of the turf war, a gambling debt he must pay off, and, in one of the film’s most effective scenes, carrying out Caspar’s orders to kill Bernie.

At the center of the film, Byrne plays Tom perfectly. Tom is cool as ice and hard as nails. When a thug asks him about a fat lip he’s sporting, Tom responds, “It’s an old war wound. It acts up around morons.” The supporting case is uniformly excellent, particularly J.E. Freeman as the Dane, one of Caspar’s tough guys, John Turturro as Bernie, and Polito as Caspar.

The script by the Coen brothers is outstanding. The plot has an amazing amount of detail, and the dialogue is smart and terrific. Joel Coen handles the directing chores and has turned in a job equal to the screenplay. Each scene is so well-crafted that the film is always a true pleasure to look at. At a time when mob and gangster pictures are coming out at an incredible rate, Joel and Ethan Coen can be very proud. They’ve created one of the standouts.

4 stars, on the 4 star scale.

Top Ten Movies of 2018 — Number Six

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Director Yorgos Lanthimos surveys society and sees corroded souls, all of them sending out alternating waves of hurt and affront, like sonar that delivers wounds. He also, to the benefit of misanthropic cineastes everywhere, finds the resulting eternal struggle to be bleakly funny. And he knows how to run that humor through a piping bag, leaving elegant lines of vibrant frosting that’s only a little poisonous. The Favourite is based in historical fact, of royalty and attendants and palace intrigue. It avoids the staid fealty that often comes with the firmly established costume drama tropes by injecting the proceedings with the gruesome messiness of humanity. Lanthimos takes the interlaced duplicities of the story (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are co-credited with the screenplay) and bends them mercilessly. Even the images distort, as if warped from the florid couplings taking place within the frame. It makes for a decadent, delectable banquet, and the actors enlisted by Lanthimos — notably Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Nicholas Hoult — are properly gluttonous at platefuls of high-caloric emotion bestowed to them. The Favourite can seem like a film deviously at odds with its own cinematic genre, but I don’t that’s quite true. Instead, Lanthimos has made a film that is subversive in the way it consistently sets expectations only to shrewdly undermine them, a whirl of imbalance that mirrors the interplay of power-focused players engaged in a perpetual test their own fractious strategies.