Monday, 31 December 2018

Boy Erased



Writer-director Joel Egerton, who also plays a major role in the film, has put together a very good film, based on a true story, about an 18-year-old man whose parents send him to a Christian facility offering gay conversion therapy (i.e. he will be converted from being gay to being straight, since being gay is just a bad choice he has made in his life).

Lucas Hedges stars as Jared, and he does a great job, as do Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as his parents, Marshall and Nancy. There are a number of well-drawn characters and lots of good dialogue telling an important story. Unfortunately, I think it’s the attempt to provide a sensitive nuanced story that prevents Boy Erased from becoming a great film, one that fully engages the heart as well as the mind. The other problem is the flashbacks, which are not well-structured into the story and therefore actually hinder our understanding of Jared's journey instead of helping it.

Nevertheless, Boy Erased gets ***+. My mug is up. Highly recommended to anyone who wonders what gay conversion therapy looks like (and how evil it is). 

Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Favourite



If I have any chance of catching up on my reviews of the more than twenty films I have watched in the past three months but not yet reviewed, I will need to write shorter reviews for a while, focusing on my assessment of the films and less on their content. My apologies to those who would wish my reviews to be thorough and provide more plot details.

Despite knowing that The Favourite was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, whose eccentric films remind me a little of Peter Greenaway (some of whose films I adored but many of which I found too bizarre), or even Lars von Trier I allowed the trailers to convince me that The Favourite would be a more mainstream feature than Dogtooth (which I disliked), The Lobster (which I loved) or The Killing of a Sacred Deer (which I disliked). It was a pleasant surprise to discover that The Favourite is in fact a quirky dark comedy/drama with a uniquely stark cinematography (occasionally providing a fishbowl lens view) that bears no resemblance to mainstream films. With the terrific performances by the three lead actors (all women, which is also unique), and clever writing by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, it’s not hard to see why The Favourite is also a favourite with critics. Unfortunately for me, The Favourite is not my kind of film, which is to say that the lack of even a single sympathetic character left me cold and disengaged throughout. I loved the witty dialogue, I loved the acting, I loved the candle-lit cinematography, I loved the period detail and the setting and I loved the score, but the plot and the crass nature of the story left me disappointed.

Set in England in 1708, Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, a woman suffering from gout and depression and relying more and more on the love of her life: Sarah, known as Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). But then Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up. Abigail begins work in the palace as the lowliest of servants, but she had been a lady once (until her father lost her in a wager) and wants to be one again. And she is intelligent enough to pull it off. But it doesn’t take long for Sarah to see through Abigail’s schemes to become the queen’s favourite. The only question is whether she can stop her.

Don’t go into the cinema thinking that this is a fun comedy drama or even a brilliantly-acted period drama. There is fun, to be sure, and the acting could not be better, but The Favourite is dark in every way and I expect many readers may not appreciate that any more than I did (i.e. I appreciate many dark films, but generally need a character I can sympathize with). The Favourite gets ***+ - **** for the excellent filmmaking but will not be one of my favourites of the year. My mug is up.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?



The other new film I caught at the cinema this week was Can You Ever Forgive Me? (directed by Marielle Heller), which the critics acclaim more highly than Green Book. Having set myself up for disappointment (due to high expectations), disappointment is precisely what I experienced, though I did enjoy the film.

In yet another film based on a true story, Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a biography writer living in Manhattan who is struggling to pay the bills. When she sees how much money she can get by selling interesting letters from famous authors to collectors, she can begins to write these letters herself as a way of making ends meet. She is eventually aided in this enterprise by a homeless friend (Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant). A key factor in their friendship is that both Lee and Jack are gay. 

Lee also befriends a local bookseller (Anna, played by Dolly Wells), though Lee struggles with her feelings for Anna, especially since Anna is one of those whom she is defrauding. In Lee’s eyes, the only true friend she has is her cat, but the cat is sick. Eventually, Lee’s crimes start to catch up to her, and she has to become ever more creative in her schemes.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a well-written and well-directed film featuring terrific performances by McCarthy and Grant as well as excellent cinematography and a good score. But its subject matter and story didn’t engage me at anywhere near the level that Green Book‘s did and it wasn’t helpful that this film is called a comedy when it is actually a solid drama with moments of dry humour. 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Roma



Wow! Two in a row, as I catch up on film-viewing back in Winnipeg (though this one is on Netflix).

I believe Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma will eventually be hailed as one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever made - a masterpiece in the grand tradition of Bergman and Tarkovsky. The black & white cinematography is as sublime as anything you will ever see (no surprise from Cuarón, who does his own cinematography), with the camera frequently panning slowly back and forth as life in Mexico City in 1970/71 unfolds in front of it in almost documentary fashion. Indeed, the period feel is beyond anything I have experienced before - it’s like Cuarón was able to travel back in time and film it live; absolutely extraordinary. 

The story, which is semi-autographical, shows us a year in the life of an upper-middle class family in Mexico City through the eyes of one of the family’s live-in maids, the young Mixteco woman, Cleo Gutierrez (played perfectly by Yalitza Aparicio). Cleo’s life takes an unexpected turn when she gets pregnant and we follow her through her pregnancy and the dramatic events that follow. 

Roma is part slice-of-life and part epic, with numerous moving and dramatic moments interspersed between the shots of daily routine. Meanwhile, outside of the family life (but occasionally touching it directly) there are violent student protests - it is a tumultuous period in Mexico’s history. 

The acting by all concerned (with a special nod to the children) is exceptional and natural. I won’t mention all the actors in what is essentially an ensemble film. 

Perhaps I’ve said enough about this stunningly beautiful film except to note why it won’t be at the top of my favourite-film list for 2018 (it will definitely be in my top five). I have no doubt that I will consider Roma to be the best film made in 2018 (one of the best of the century), but being the best film doesn’t make it my favourite film (as I have explained before). The story of Roma and its numerous characters simply didn’t engage me at a deep enough level to become my favourite film of the year. Nevertheless, a very easy ****. My mug is held high in gratitude to Cuarón for blessing us with another marvellous film.

BTW The title refers to the neighbourhood in Mexico City (Colonia Roma) where most of the film is set. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Green Book



Wow!

Yes, I know it’s been a long time since I wrote my last review for the blog (the longest break ever). With endless travel and buying a house in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, I finally reached a point where I barely had time to watch films, let alone write reviews. 

It’s also been a long time since I saw my last Wow film, which I was waiting for to help kickstart my review-writing. I wasn’t expecting Green Book to be that Wow film, but it surprised me in all the right ways and currently has a place in my top three films of 2018.

The biggest surprise Green Book offers is that it was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, whose biggest claim to fame is the two Dumb and Dumber films, which I refuse to even watch, as they belong to my least favourite genre (stupid comedies). This fact alone kept my expectations in check. But Farrelly’s direction and writing were almost flawless in Green Book.

Green Book is set in 1962 and stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, a bouncer in New York City’s biggest nightclub (Copacabana). When the club closes for two months (for renovations), Tony looks for a temporary job and ends up being hired by a well-known pianist (Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali) to be his chauffeur on a two-month American concert tour that focuses on the southern states. An uneducated Italian bouncer and self-proclaimed bullshit-artist with racist tendencies (he and his friends regularly refer to black people as eggplants) seems like a strange choice to be a chauffeur for a black musician with three doctorates, but Shirley needs the muscle and intimidation of someone like Tony to protect him on a tour that includes states like Mississippi and Alabama at a time when such states had very racist attitudes (understatement).

As one would expect on such a long road trip, with only Tony and Dr. Shirley in the car, the two men have plenty of opportunity to argue and discover just how different their worlds are. But as they face the challenge of spending so much time together and of the many racist altercations they encounter along the way, something changes in both men. I will say no more about the plot, as I recommend Green Book to all readers without reservation and want to spoil as little as possible.

However, I will say that Green Book suffers from a fair amount of predictability, which would potentially knock at least half a star off its rating if it wasn’t for the fact that the film is based on a true story. This road trip really happened (if not exactly in this way). And what makes Green Book a great film is precisely the relationship/chemistry between Tony and Dr. Shirley during that road trip. Mortensen and Ali are sensational, delivering spot-on performances that, with the help of great dialogue-writing) create pure movie magic. The rest of the acting is also solid, with a special nod to Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife, Dolores.

Aiding in the magic of watching Dr. Shirley and Tony is the lush cinematography and excellent score that create the perfect period setting. I felt I was back in 1962. And the new turquoise cadillac (my first car was a 1962 light-blue Chevy) was a nice touch.

Since racism is a major theme in Green Book, some critics complain that the film doesn’t treat racism with the seriousness it deserves, but rather as a minor problem in the 1960’s. I didn’t get that sense at all. Sure, Green Book, in spite of numerous dark scenes, is a relatively light film that doesn’t explore racist structures in any depth. But that lightness was one of the many pleasant surprises of the film and, again, it’s based on a true story and is not meant to be a film that digs deep into racism in the U.S. then and now (other films made this year have done that).

One complaint I do have is that Green Book is such a male film, but even here I think efforts were made, and, under the circumstances, it would have been difficult for this story to pass the Bechdel test.

Green Book gets a solid **** and will very likely have s spot in my top five films of the year.