Iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh has been the subject of several biopics over the years but none have captured his unique artistry more vividly than the excellent new film At Eternity’s Gate. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel has rendered a portrait of the troubled visionary that is appropriately impressionistic and experimental in ways that Van Gogh himself may well have appreciated. Filled with vibrant landscapes and illuminating dialogue, this is a film that constantly searches for beauty and purity as it investigates the final years of a man who took a similar approach to crafting his own masterworks.
Willem Dafoe lends a committed and impassioned performance as the tormented artist, to whom we’re introduced in 1880s Paris where his impact in the local art community is almost nonexistent. On the suggestion of his pontifical peer Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh relocates to the rural town of Arles in the south of France, thanks to the financial support of his benevolent brother Theo (Rupert Friend). There, Vincent rediscovers the natural landscape and is inspired to create some of his most remarkable paintings but the insurmountable loneliness inevitably takes its toll as his inner demons threaten to get the best of him.
The most bold artistic choices from At Eternity’s Gate come courtesy of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who uses unconventional angles and point-of-view shots to share Van Gogh’s perspective with the audience. This unorthodox style may frustrate those looking for a more standard biopic but for me, the use of subjective camera to get inside the headspace of Van Gogh was both engrossing and enlightening. For example, a trip to an art museum, during which Van Gogh confesses in voiceover his reverence for his contemporaries as he gazes upon their works, is shot exclusively from low angles to illustrate how daunted he feels by his peers.
Schnabel, who is credited as a co-writer for the screenplay, also uses thoughtful dialogue to uncover aspects of Van Gogh’s psyche that seem applicable to artists working in any medium. Vincent conveys his compulsion to create to one of his subjects when he remarks “the faster I paint, the better I feel” and while not everyone who makes art does so with as much fervor as Van Gogh, the impulse nonetheless feels universal. In a conversation with a priest played by Mads Mikkelsen, he laments that he feels like a man out of time by suggesting “maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t here yet.”
Portraying such a towering figure in the art history is an unenviable task and despite the age difference between Dafoe and the real-life subject, he crafts a performance that is effortlessly engaging from start to finish. Even though the actor’s portrayals of rage on-screen would seem compatible for an artist prone to fits of madness, Dafoe does an excellent job of sublimating outward anger into a more nuanced form of melancholy that unquestionably inspires empathy from the audience. At Eternity’s Gate is sensitive and exquisite depiction of a troubled master that is made both by artists and for artists.
Score – 4/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend: A Madea Family Funeral, starring Tyler Perry and Cassi Davis, is the 11th and reportedly final entry in the popular Madea film series about a Georgia funeral that erupts into chaos as family secrets come to light. Greta, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz, tells the story of a young woman who becomes intertwined with an eccentric French piano teacher after a chance encounter. Opening for a limited IMAX engagement is Apollo 11, the documentary that scored rave reviews at Sundance last month which documents the 1969 space mission that landed man on the moon.
I’m joined by my wife Aubree as we talk over this year’s Academy Awards, including the numerous controversies surrounding the ceremony. Then we’ll go over the nominations in each of the 24 categories with predictions, our personal picks and some overlooked options from 2018.
Sadly, this year’s batch of nominees is somewhat underwhelming. The Academy is still waffling between how many nominees should be in the category; there were 9 the past 2 years but now we only have 8. What’s wrong with just having 10 and calling it done, especially when First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk would’ve rounded things out nicely? The good news is that Roma is the current expected winner and while it’s not my personal favo(u)rite of the bunch, it’s an exceptionally well-made film that represents the category nicely.
My Prediction:Roma My Vote: The Favourite Overlooked: Widows
Spike Lee – BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski – Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos – The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón – Roma
Adam McKay – Vice
An interesting bunch here, especially with the inclusion of Pawlikowski and the exclusion of Bradley Cooper for A Star Is Born. Somehow, this is the first time that Spike Lee has been nominated for Best Director (Do the Right Thing lost Best Original Screenplay in 1990). It is truly stunning that McKay received a nomination in lieu of plenty of other more worthy directors like Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle. The chances are miniscule that Alfonso Cuarón, who won Best Director in 2015 for Gravity, will lose here.
My Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón My Vote: Yorgos Lanthimos Overlooked: Debra Granik – Leave No Trace
Christian Bale – Vice
Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe – At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen – Green Book
I haven’t caught up with At Eternity’s Gate (I’ll give Dafoe the benefit of the doubt) but I just can’t get excited about this field. Two of the nominees rely heavily on hair and makeup to augment their performances and I’d consider them both to be the frontrunners at this point. Elsewhere, Mortensen does what he can with a heavily stereotyped role and while Cooper is probably my favorite of this group, it’s not terribly high praise. Ethan Hawke is a glaring snub but Ryan Gosling, Joaquin Phoenix and Brady Jandreau (since the Academy seems friendly to newcomers this year) would have been much better picks too.
Update: I have now seen At Eternity’s Gate and will say that Dafoe has my vote for his committed performance as Vincent Van Gogh. I have also switched my prediction from Christian Bale to Rami Malek, who has emerged as the front runner since my original post.
My Prediction: Rami Malek My Vote: Willem Dafoe Overlooked: Ethan Hawke – First Reformed
Yalitza Aparicio – Roma
Glenn Close – The Wife
Olivia Colman – The Favourite
Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
I haven’t caught up with The Wife yet (I may do so before the ceremonies) but I can say that I feel much better about this category in comparison to Best Actor. Great to see a first-time actress like Aparicio get a chance here but I also would have loved recognition for Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) and Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as well. It’s bizarre for me to see McCarthy here, since the wounds of The Happytime Murders still feel fresh. Close, nominated six times previously without a win, will likely take home the “Overdue Oscar” although Lady Gaga makes for an intriguing upset pick.
My Prediction: Glenn Close My Vote: Olivia Colman Overlooked: Toni Collette – Hereditary
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali – Green Book
Adam Driver – BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott – A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell – Vice
My Prediction: Mahershala Ali My Vote: Richard E Grant Overlooked: Simon Russell Beale – The Death of Stalin
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams – Vice
Marina de Tavira – Roma
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone – The Favourite
Rachel Weisz – The Favourite
My Prediction: Regina King My Vote: Rachel Weisz Overlooked: Claire Foy – First Man
The supporting categories this year call to mind how desperately the Academy needs to implement a Best Ensemble category. Regina King was wonderful in If Beale Street Could Talk but that film had at least 4 or 5 other supporting performances (some which only occur during one scene) that are at least as good if not better. Stone and Weisz will likely cancel each other out, a shame since their performances tower over the other three picks. I’m no fan of Vice but Steve Carell would have been a better pick than Sam Rockwell, who already won Supporting Actor last year anyway and had a much easier role in the film.
Best Original Screenplay
The Favourite – Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara
First Reformed – Paul Schrader
Green Book – Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie & Peter Farrelly
Roma – Alfonso Cuarón
Vice – Adam McKay
My Prediction: The Favourite My Vote: The Favourite Overlooked: Eighth Grade
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Joel & Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman – Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins brings magic to the screen once again with If Beale Street Could Talk, a spellbinding and sensuous portrait of young love flourishing amid tragic circumstances. With disarming close-ups and a warm, autumnal color palette, Jenkins creates a world that’s both inviting and illuminating while fully acknowledging and exploring the darker corners that reside within it. Every sensation experienced by the characters — from longing to sorrow to jubilation — is poetically rendered by Jenkins to tell an entrancing story that feels deeply human and lastingly resonant.
Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Beale Street is primarily a love story centered around 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) and her older boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James), who started as childhood friends but became closer as time progressed. We soon discover that the young and un-wed Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child, much to the delight of her mother Sharon (Regina King) and father Joseph (Colman Domingo) but to the chagrin of Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis). As the narrative continues, we learn that Fonny has been wrongfully incarcerated and we track Tish’s journey to prove his innocence before their child is brought into the world.
Jenkins utilizes his world cinema influences to weave a tale of injustice and intimacy with a loose chronological perspective; he tends to linger around what he finds alluring within a certain time and place. Striking sequences, like one in which Tish outlines the way different customers approach sampling a new perfume scent, give an evocative sense of context and setting without strictly adhering to the main storyline. There are certain characters, such as the ones played by Brian Tyree Henry and Dave Franco, whose time on-screen is short but their emotional impact lingers throughout the film.
Faithfully adapting both prose and tone from Baldwin’s book, Jenkins fills his script with moments in which characters quietly assert their dignity during the peak of their own personal struggles. During an early scene in which a trepidatious Tish is breaking the pregnancy news to her family, her sister Ernestine comes to her support by saying “unbow your head, sister” and every opportunity for empowerment is beautifully realized. The inverse of this are the lines that remind us of the heartbreaking strife at the core of the story, as Tish narrates “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
Collaborating again with Jenkins for the film’s music is Oscar-nominated composer Nicholas Britell, whose achingly beautiful score is so potent that just hearing the first thirty seconds of it had me on the verge of tears. Also returning with Jenkins from Moonlight is Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton, who often uses close-ups of actors looking directly in the lens to engage with the audience and draw us further into the story. The sum of these artistic contributions makes If Beale Street Could Talk an utterly engrossing mood piece that sways to its own rhythm and invites us to join along with it.
Score – 4/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Glass, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis, is the latest from M. Night Shyamalan that brings together characters from Unbreakable and Split to tell a new kind of superhero story. Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman and Sebastian Stan, follow an LAPD detective who revisits an undercover case from years ago to solve a gang-related murder in the present. Also playing at Cinema Center is Roma, the acclaimed film by Alfonso Cuarón that has already won multiple awards this month (including 2 Golden Globes) and will likely be up for several Oscar nominations next month.
Christian Bale once again undergoes an astonishing transformation for the new Dick Cheney biopic Vice, the latest from The Big Short director Adam McKay that almost entirely misses the mark. The politically charged film is knowingly divisive and meant to be controversial in its depiction of the former Vice President but for all of its empty provocation, it fails to capture its subject on the most fundamental level. After its 132-minute runtime, I learned barely anything about Dick Cheney that I didn’t already know and aside from some solid performances and a few effective bits of humor, there’s little else to recommend in this superficial satire.
We’re introduced to Cheney in his early years working as a power lineman in Wyoming, where his drunken antics impel his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) to steer him in the right direction. We then cut to his time as an intern in the Nixon White House, where Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) soon becomes his mentor and guides him to a Chief of Staff position under President Ford following the Nixon resignation. After his time in the private sector as CEO of Halliburton, Cheney re-enters the political landscape when presidential hopeful George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) implores him to be his running mate in the 2000 election.
The biggest thing keeping Vice from being at least a passable biopic is the scattershot direction from McKay, which is not only lacking in narrative clarity but is also loaded with an undeniable sense of condescension. Working again with The Big Short editor Hank Corwin, McKay packs in as many talking points as possible, even if they don’t thematically cohere with what’s happening in the narrative at any given point. Just as he delighted in breaking down the 2008 financial collapse for us in his previous film, McKay frequently freeze-frames the action to glibly lecture us on political strategy via a mystery narrator voiced by Jesse Plemons.
It’s this patronizing tone that constantly undermines any sense of comedic or dramatic momentum that is built up during the film. There are individual moments, like a fake epilogue at the movie’s midway point or an Alfred Molina cameo that depicts him as a waiter offering political euphemisms as menu items, that are clever on their own but feel at odds with the film’s more dramatic inflections. It’s obvious that McKay isn’t interested in applying any sort of nuance or insight in his depiction of Cheney’s personal journey and frankly, I’m not sure why he was so committed to writing and directing a movie about a public figure for which he seems to have so much disdain.
A greater sense of drive and purpose can be found more from the ensemble cast than McKay’s direction and that starts with Bale as the central character. Adding another committed performance to his stellar resume, Bale builds upon the prominent physical aspects of the role by also applying a pitch-perfect pragmatic diction that suits the character brilliantly. Elsewhere, Adams makes the most of her limited screen time with a believable sense of determination and Carell continues to hone his dramatic chops while implementing his undeniable charisma. Sadly, their work gets lost in the shuffle as Vice provides a toothless take on Cheney’s legacy.
Score – 2/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: A Dog’s Way Home, starring Ashley Judd and Bryce Dallas Howard, is a canine-centric tearjerker about a lost dog who makes a 400 mile journey home while making friends along the way. Replicas, starring Keanu Reeves and Alice Eve, tells the tale of desperate neuroscientist who will stop at nothing to bring his family back to life after their untimely demise in a car accident. The Upside, starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, follows the relationship between a paralyzed billionaire and a recently paroled convict who is hired to look after him.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos turns the costume drama genre on its head with The Favourite, a wickedly hilarious and delightfully idiosyncratic vision of royal life in early 18th century England. With lavish costume design and exquisite set design, the film excels in areas typical of period pieces but it goes beyond that by pairing those aspects with a thoroughly engaging and entertaining story. Lanthimos has channeled his mordant perspective on human behavior into a bracingly original tragicomedy which proves that not every movie with corsets has to be restrained by the trappings of its respective genre.
Olivia Colman gives a brilliant performance as the depressed and erratic Queen Anne, who has effectively relinquished most of her governing ability to her advisor and confidant Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Though the relationship between the two is strong, Sarah’s efforts to control the Queen are periodically disrupted by haughty Parliament member Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Upon the arrival of her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s political influence is undermined further as Abigail insinuates herself into the Queen’s daily life. Soon enough, a war of attrition develops between the two cousins as they vie for permanent power.
This marks the first time Lanthimos has worked with a script which he didn’t have a hand in writing himself but fortunately, his darkly comic sensibilities seem to be in lock-step with those of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Loaded with biting wit and profane exchanges that will keep audience’s ears perked up, the screenplay also does a superb job at developing these three female characters in such a way that we can sympathize with them one minute and loathe them the next. Perhaps the film’s defining line is a self-aware and droll observation from Abigail: “as it turns out, I’m capable of much unpleasantness.”
Another audacious aspect of The Favourite is how many stylistic chances are taken from a visual standpoint. The camerawork by Robbie Ryan is boldly unconventional in its frequent use of low (extremely low, in some cases) angles and fish-eye lenses to throw the audience’s equilibrium off balance. He also adapts to the challenges of shooting in low light settings brilliantly — comparisons to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are both inevitable and deserved. The costume work from Oscar-winning designer Sandy Powell embraces all of the film’s eccentricities while also staying true to the film’s sense of time and place.
Bringing the entire production together are three outstanding performances calibrated perfectly with one another. Colman modulates layers of sadness for both comedic and dramatic effect while Weisz brings a calculating brilliance to Sarah as she weighs cruelty against compassion in nearly every conversation she has. Stone utilizes her deadpan and self-effacing abilities to masterful effect and also carries through a believable transformation in her character. The Favourite is a bold and distinctive work from a director at the pinnacle of his powers and perhaps it’s not a surprise that it’s my favorite film of the year.
Score – 5/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Escape Room, starring Taylor Russell and Deborah Ann Woll, pits six teenagers against a trendy new escape room that they soon discover has deadly traps at every turn. If Beale Street Could Talk, starring Stephan James and KiKi Layne, is the latest from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins about a young African-American woman looking to clear her husband’s name after he’s falsely convicted of a crime. On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, tells the life story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg starting with a gender discrimination case that would pave the way for the rest of her career.
I’m back in the studio with my brother Eric and my sister-in-law Jessi to talk through The Favourite, the new historical drama/comedy from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. We also talk about endings and narrative ambiguity as it applies to the movie industry as a whole. Find us on Facebook, Twitter and Letterboxd.
Disney’s recent trend of rehashing existing properties continues with Mary Poppins Returns, a much belated sequel that doesn’t diminish the legacy of its classic predecessor but does little to add to it either. Director Rob Marshall has the unenviable task of filling a 54 year gap between his new film and Mary Poppins, which was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and is widely considered Disney’s finest achievement in live-action filmmaking. The sequel strains hard at every turn to draw parallels to and recapture the magic of the original but nearly everything about this retread feels forced and overly calculated.
Taking place 25 years after the events of the first film, we’re re-introduced to the Banks children Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), the latter of whom has fallen on hard times since the passing of his wife. After falling months behind with their house payments, Michael and his three children are at risk of having their home taken away from them unless they can produce valuable stock certificates left by Michael’s late father. Sensing that the Banks family needs her help once again, the mystical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) descends from the sky to fill the young ones with joy and wonder amid their dire circumstances.
From an opening number that features Lin-Manuel Miranda sporting a Cockney accent not too dissimilar from Dick Van Dyke’s in the original, this film feels like it’s trying too hard in almost every aspect. There are some numbers, like “A Cover Is Not A Book”, that do find their own spark of creativity but many of these routines feel like they’re intentionally pulling too much from the past. Aside from its inclusion of BMX bike tricks, “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is obviously meant to recreate the rooftop whimsy of “Step In Time” from the 1964 original but it fails to recapture the spirit and imagination of that rousing number.
At a stout 130 minutes, Mary Poppins Returns outstays its welcome with sequences of song and dance that are intermittently charming and dazzling but feel like distractions from a story that’s quite paper-thin in the first place. It’s not an exaggeration to say that half of this film’s plot revolves around repairing a china bowl and while I understand musicals don’t always have the most dense storylines when compared to dramas, there still needs to be enough at stake to get involved in what’s happening. There’s also a major lapse of logic that occurs in the film’s climax that involves Poppins’ neglect to utilize her magical powers at a critical moment.
Being a Disney production, the film is, of course, very competently made and there’s no shortage of talent on and off the screen. The costumes and set design are both first-rate, while the acting (at least from the adults) is strong all around. Blunt does a great job of embodying the classic character, building off of Julie Andrews’ performance while also adding grace notes of her own. Whishaw makes the most of his limited role and Mortimer does a fine job as well, even though her character is severely underwritten. Mary Poppins Returns may enchant those with close ties to the original but as a whole, this belated sequel simply feels too little and too late.
Score – 2/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: The Favourite, starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, depicts the power struggle between two cousins jockeying to be court favorites during Queen Anne’s reign in the early 18th century. Vice, starring Christian Bale and Amy Adams, is another tongue-in-cheek biopic from The Big Short director Adam McKay which covers the influential vice presidency of Dick Cheney. Second Act, starring Jennifer Lopez and Leah Remini, follows a working class mother who gets a second chance at a corporate career after a falsified resume lands her a high-profile position at a finance firm.
Two major questions loom large over the latest from Sony Pictures Animation: does the world really need another superhero movie and more importantly, does it really need another Spider-Man movie? Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse answers both of these questions early and often with an emphatic “yes”; this is not only the most electrifying superhero film of the year but it’s also the best on-screen version of the web-slinger that I’ve ever seen. Packed to the brim with vivid and vibrant animated flourishes that call back to the rich comic book heritage of this series, this is a film that honors the mythology of its central character while expanding on it beautifully.
At the center of this Spider-Man story is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a bright teenager who develops unusual abilities after being bitten by a genetically modified spider. While this part of the story is certainly familiar, the new twist this time around is the introduction of a particle accelerator that allows for access of parallel universes. This leaves the gateway open for other inter-dimensional iterations of Spider-Man, including Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), among others. Together, they all have to come together to stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), along with two other major foes, as they try to destroy New York City.
The design of this film is unlike any other that I’ve seen from another animated picture before, weaving together the aesthetics of various genres from anime to Looney Tunes-era cartoons in a spectacularly clever manner. It also incorporates the use of purposefully misaligned colors to out-of-focus objects in the background, which replicates the look and feel of comic books from the 1960s where Spider-Man was born. On top of these homages to other mediums, the film is also astonishing in its implementation of cutting-edge computer animation, especially during the climactic showdown that shuffles objects from one dimension to another.
It would be enough if this was simply the best-looking Spider-Man movie but thanks to co-writer Phil Lord (also behind last year’s similarly hilarious The LEGO Batman Movie), it’s also the funniest. The movie respectfully pokes fun at the different interpretations of Spider-Man that have appeared in comics through the years, from 1930s detective styled Spider-Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage) to Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney), who has the power to “float in the air at the smell of a delicious pie”. It also has some fun with superhero tropes like the down-to-the-wire heroics; at one point, Parker quips “there’s always a little time before people die and that’s where I do my best work.”
What I appreciated most is that these jokes and the accompanying kinetic animation style don’t detract from the fact that this has an excellent origin story at its core that, spider-bite aside, is very different from what we’ve seen in a film up to this point. The self-referential humor can be cheeky but not in a way that tries to tear down the myth behind the superhero; the trio of directors behind this movie clearly have a great reverence for the character and his lineage. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most invigorating superhero film I’ve seen since The Avengers in 2012 and proves that even in an over-saturated market, fresh ideas can still be found.
Score – 4.5/5
Coming to theaters this weekend: Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a direct sequel to the classic 1964 musical which finds the merry and mystical nanny reuniting with two of the children from the original. Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, is the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe which follows the titular superhero as he leads the people of Atlantis against the evil sea creature Orm. Bumblebee, starring Hailee Steinfeld and John Cena, is a spin-off of the Transformers franchise (technically a prequel to the first film in the series) that focuses on the origin of the titular yellow robot.