A few solid films opening this week. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS and GREEN ROOM are both on my top 10 of the year list.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
Bad Reputation and
The Children Act
BEST FILMS OF 2018 (so far)
Angels Wear White
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)
Isle of Dogs
You Were Never Really Here
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (USA 2018) ***** TOP 10
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Made as a Netflix original movie, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is the title of the first of six the Coen Brothers stories set in the American frontier. It is also the best of the six stories.
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers (the name that is synonymous with solid entertainment), the film is comprised of six chapters that present a different story with a different attitude from the wild frontier.
The odd thing is that instead of the best reserved for the last, the first chapter, and the title of the film is the best of the anthology. Anthology films, so popular in the past are now not so common. Each chapter lasts about 20 minutes or so, and stars a complete different cast of actors.
The first episode - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs- tells the story of a sharp-shooting songster played by an unforgettable Tim Blake Nelson. It is hilarious, unpredictable and fun from moment one. Nelson shows up as the fastest gun in the west while breaking into song and dance unexpectedly as well. Though predictable as to what will happen to him at the end, this is one chapter that one does not want to end. And to watch again and again!
The second is called “In Near Algodones’, in which a wannabe bank robber (James Franco) gets his due and then some. The bank clerk the robber has to deal with is someone totally unexpected, coming out a-shooting with his armour of pots and pans.
Meal Ticket is a gothic tale about two weary travelling performers with Liam Neeson. This is the least strong of the stories and my least favourite.
Al that glitters is definitely gold. All Gold Canyon is a story about a prospector mining for gold, with Tom Waits as the elderly prospector. The scenes of him panning the sands for grains of gold nuggets are priceless with Waits eagerly waiting to strike the mother lode. The next is a wagon trail in which a woman finds an unexpected promise of love, along with a dose of life’s cruel irony, across the prairies in the chapter entitled The Gal Who Got Rattled.
Finally, ghostly laughs haunt The Mortal Remains as a pompous Lady (Tyne Daly) rains judgment upon a motley crew of strangers undertaking a final stagecoach ride. This is the most talky of the stories and clearly shows the film deserving of the Best Screenplay Award it won at the Venice International filmFestival. The monologue by the uneducated trapper, played by Chelcie Ross in simple but and the superbly well-written prose is unforgettable.
The common thread in all the 6 movie is the unforgettable central character. Each story has one that stands out and each are performed by a famous actor trying on something completely different.
One can only wish for more of these priceless uniquely Coen Brothers stamped stories.
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (USA/UK 2018) **
Directed by Peter Yates
The sequel to FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM and the prequel to the HARRY POTTER movies, THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD sees the entire original cast here performing more of the same, or in other words, marking time with nothing really to show for it.
The film continues where the first film ends. The powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Oscar Winner Eddie Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escapes custody again and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards and witches up to rule over all non-magical beings.
The film’s best sequence is the beginning with Grindelwald’s (Johnny Depp) escape from jail custody. Still, the action sequence is confusing with too many blurry special and CGI effects. It sets up the beginning of events Grindelwald sets up to gain power and hopefully destroy human beings.
It is best to get familiar with all the characters in the story before heading out to see the film, as it gets confusing and confusing very fast. First and foremost is the main character, Newt.
Newt is a British Ministry of Magic employee in the Beasts Division of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, as well as a self-proclaimed magizoologist. This explains his suitcase containing all his magical creatures. The creatures are cute-weird to look at, but they do not do much to propel the story, except to provide a few of the lighter moments, which can lead to boredom fast. He played a part in remedying the events of a violent attack on the City of New York in December 1926 (the time when the film opens) involving dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. He is a confidante of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), despite being an outcast from certain circles of British Wizarding society due to his checkered past.
Newt’s on and off romantic interest is Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a promoted MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) Auror. Thankfully, the romance is kept to a minimum with hardly any face sucking. One of the story’s most interesting written characters is Creedance, the disturbed adopted child of Mary-Lou Barebone, violently abused and downtrodden. Enraged by people's treatment of him and Grindelwald's betrayal, he set his Obscurus parasite loose on the City of New York. Menacingly portrayed by Ezra Miller (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), Creedance is one character one wishes had more screen time. On the other end of the spectrum, the most annoying character is the plumpish and goofy baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Thankfully, he is given less to do than in the first film. His romance with Queenie (Alison Sudol) undergoes some tests in the film.
The film has a period setting of Paris and London and the film looks great, courtesy of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. At least, he knows what to do with the $200 million production cost. Special effects are equally stunning. But the problems of confused storytelling, muddled twists and turns and too many characters to keep track of, lead to an irrelevant and boring middle FANTASTIC BEASTS film, preparing for the next instalment.
GREEN BOOK (USA 2018) ***** Top 10
Directed by Peter Farrelly
GREEN BOOK, the film is named from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a segregation-era road travel guidebook to help African-Americans dealing with racial discrimination issues and Jim Crow laws, such as whites-only garages, restaurants and hotels refusing services. This book (nicknamed ‘vacation without aggravation’) is used during the tour of the Deep South in the 1960s by Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and New York bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who served as Shirley's driver and security.
The film follows the protagonist Tony Lip as he takes a difficult new job in order to support his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and his two kids. The job is to chauffeur and protect Dr. Shirley as he tours the racial prejudiced deep south. It is a pretty country but not for the coloured folk there. It is a simple story but one is both extremely moving and relevant in today’s times. What makes the film totally winning is that it is a film about discovery, as each of the two main characters Tony and Dr. Shirley learn about each other, the people and ultimately about themselves.
As far as anti-racists films go, GREEN BOOK works because it captures the ugliness of racism without resorting to cheap theatrics and crowd pleasing dramatic setups as in the recent THE HATE U GIVE. Racism occurs when the guilty racist demonstrates the fact, unaware that the is doing so. This is demonstrated in the one scene where Tony hits an officer when he calls Tony a half-nigger.
There are many ‘best’ scenes in GREEN BOOK. My personal favourite is the hotel corridor scene where Dr. Shirley pleads Tony not to give up his job as his chauffeur and driver only to be corrected that he never intended to do so in the first place.
The 60’s period setting is captured by effective yet simple props like the vintage TV, the old telephone, wardrobe and the old vintage cars.
The film also demonstrates that a film's climax need not always contain pyrotechnic explosions, super fight sequences or an exciting finish. GREEN BOOK closes nicely with a well-thought out conclusion.
Besides besides a Top 10 film, GREEN BOOK also contains Top 10 of the year performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT). Both actors are superb, Ali delivering a more controlled performance only letting all the emotions go in the one scene when his character walks out of the car in the pouring rain. Mortensen (of Danish origin) perfects Tony’s Italian mannerisms to a ’T’, putting on physically the weight of the role. He captures the naivety and street smartness of his character.
GREEN BOOK won the Toronto International Film Festival’s most coveted prize of the People’s Audience Choice Award. Last year’s winner THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also won the Best Picture Oscar. GREEN BOOK hopes and deserves the same honours.
IN SEARCH OF GREATNESS (USA 2018) **
Directed by Gabe Polsky
IN SEARCH OF GREATNESS is a documentary that seeks to find the secret behind the success of ‘great’ athletes.
The film never really defines greatness. What is greatness? From the first few segments of the film, the idea of greatness appears to be narrowed down to the greatness of athletes. Their ability to do well in their field of sports be it football or soccer or hockey. Still greatness is assumed to achieve fame in their sport so that they become world-famous in their sport. Intelligence, dedication and other factors are tied in as well. The film relies heavily on the interviews with authors and creativity experts Ken Robinson and David Epstein.
The main point drummed into the audience is that one cannot measure greatness. The film does measure it in terms of fame, or why would they pick Lou Ferrigno, Jerry Rice or Wayne Gretzky to be their spokespersons? What is the filmmakers measurement definition of fame then in picking them? But another associated fact is that one cannot train for greatness. If one as become a hockey star, he cannot go to hockey school or a special hockey camp to cultivate that greatness. The film comes up with dozens of examples of people that go against the flow. It never however mentioned the exceptions of the people who did go for special training and followed the rules who got into major leagues. I am sure there are many here too.
The road to greatness? The hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and “Red Army’s” Gabe Polsky, among others have a lot to say based on their experiences. Most of these are common sense. But it is educational and there is nothing wrong to be clarified on what common sense can teach human beings.
So what are these common sense pointers? It seems silly that one should attend a full length feature to learn what is commonly known. The most important point that is emphasized time and again is the need to ditch conformity. Following the formula of a great athlete’s training does not make another great athlete. From the film, these can be summarized, of course from the point of view of the doc’s ‘experts’:
rage to perform: in other words, dedication is key as emphasized by Wayne Gretzky. He would rather spend two hours hitting the puck instead of going to a movie with his pals.
ability to learn: in other words, intuition, again Gretzky could immediately analyze the payers in a game within the first few minutes of play
Despite the concentration on sports greatness, the film only narrowly touches other fields of genius. The film contains footage of many great athletes at their heights (Pele, Muhammed Ali, Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, Serena Williams) which makes like cameos in a feature.
One can only wonder why director Polsky does not apply the principles of greatness in the making of his documentary. IN SAERCH of GREATNESS is an ok doc but to a great one.
A PRIVATE WAR (USA 2018) **
Directed by Matthew Heineman
A Private War has been described as an American biographical drama film though director Matthew Heineman has made it clear that he did not intend the film to be a run-of-the-mill biography. This is obvious once the film starts kicking into gear as it becomes clear exactly where the film is heading. Heineman praises his subject, British journalist, Marie Colvin (an admirable performance by Rosamund Pike despite the film’s flaws) to no end - a martyr for the course of war journalism. The film is based on the 2012 article "Marie Colvin’s Private War" in Vanity Fair by Marie Brenner and written for the film by Arash Amel.
Heineman’s film begins with Marie Colvin in a war zone doing her job covering the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. When the film whisks Colman from one war zone to another, ending in HOMS in Syria, it is clear that the film is not really interested in telling the stories of the casualties of war - nor of the sufferings of the people; nor of the lies told by Governments nor of the fact that world needs to be told of what is going on and to be aware (as Colvin, herself says her goal in journalism is). It is to tell of the heroism of one Marie Colvin - but without the warts at all.
At the film’s worst, Colvin is seen in the battlefield with perfect hair with nicely groomed curls down her sides. The fact must have been pretty obvious as most of her other war scenes has her hair tied in a bundle.
The film contains no shortage of subtleties. When Colvin receives the Foreign Correspondent of the year Award, the film quickly moves away from the scene and omits her acceptance speech. Yes, the audience gets the point the she is not in the business for the fame. A PRIVATE WAR is all abut Colvin’s conviction in telling stories in dangerous scenarios. The other fact is her Sunday Times boss, Sean Ryan played by Tom Hollander is always seen in a suit and tie, another indication that the director needs to keep reminding the audience that Colvin is doing a dangerous job in the field while he is having it ‘cushy nice’ in the office. “I want to tell their stories,” Colvin says at one point in the film. Heineman isn’t interested in telling ‘their’ stories at all but only her story. So unsure that his audience will not get the film’s point, the point has to be said out loud to Colvin in the dialogue: “If you lose your conviction, what hope do we have?”
The best film about journalism, and one that demands to be seen is Phillip Noyce’s NEWSFRONT, also arguably one of the best Australian films ever made. Bill Hunter plays a newsreel man in the 60’s in a film that exhorts its heroes in the news without resorting to glamorization and overblown set pieces. The one shot in NEWSFRONT of a drowned cameraman in a flood he was covering is enough to say it all. A PRIVATE WAR, in contrast drums the fact into the audience to no end. Even Colvin’s PTSD (Post Trauma Stress Disorder) is downplayed. With the scene of her having a bath together with her wealthy lover played by Stanley Tucci, the film has reached its ridiculous limit.
But there is a reward in staying for the closing credits. Annie Lennox delvers a beautiful rendition of the song “Requiem for a PrivateWar”.
WIDOWS (USA 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Steve McQueen
Drama heavyweight director of critical hits like HUNGER and 12 YEARS A SLAVE attempts an action packed pyro-technics thriller WIDOWS with quite an impressive cast of heavyweights headed by Viola Davis.
WIDOWS is that rare action movie centring on women proving that they too can carry an action film. The script is by GONE GIRL author Gillian Flynn.
Veronica (Davis) lives an idyllic life in Chicago, ensconced in the loving arms of her husband, Rawlins (Liam Neeson), and in their luxurious condo. But Rawlins bought that cushy life robbing people, unknown to Veronica, a teacher in the Chicago education system. (There is no scene of Veronica at her work.) When a job with his gang goes fatally wrong, Veronica's life falls to pieces. With a local crime lord (Brian Tyree Henry) and his muscle (Daniel Kaluuya) pressing her to pay Rawlins's $2 million debt, Veronica realizes her late husband’s shady business sees only one option: round up the three other women who had slept for years next to these seasoned criminals, and make a plan left by her husband to win their lives back. There is also a side plot involving the crime lord running for office against another crooked white politician Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell).
The film’s most interesting character is Tom Mulligan. Tom exerts a power both within and beyond the law, pushed by his father (Robert Duvall). Tom appears to be a worthy candidate but deep inside, he is fed up of the father’s dynasty in Chicago and wants out. It is not surprising that the film is at its most interesting when McQueen deals with the drama rather than the action as in the film’s best scene - the confrontation between Farrell and Duvall.
To make the heist film more personal, the film interweaves the lives and hence, problems of the 4 widows that undertake the heist. Each have their own burdens. The other three are played by Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki all of whom shine in their roles.
McQueen has achieved the rare feat of being able to elicit unforgettable performances - not from a few but from his entire cast. The best two performances belong to Farrell who is aided by the most intriguing written character and GET OUT’s immediately recognizable Daniel Kaluuya who demonstrates how smooth violence can be executed.
As this is McQueen’s first action flick, one can see him trying too hard at times. The romantic scenes are a bit too livid for comfort, all the kissing scenes involving the tongue. This results in the kissing scene (mixed race) between Viola Davis and Liam Neeson that would make quite a few quite uncomfortable. Credit for trying.
As a thriller, WIDOWS contains quite a few plot twists. Well written and inserted into the storyline, they serve to enrich the drama rather than just being there for the sole purpose of surprise, a tactic that seems now too common in most Hollywood thrillers.
WIDOWS premiered successfully at the Toronto International Film Festival to general favourable reviews. WIDOWS should not only please McQueen’s fan base but extend his career into the Hollywood mainstream.