AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018)
Few artists have attracted the attention of filmmakers and actors through the years as often as Vincent van Gogh.
Kirk Douglas gave one of his strongest performances as the Dutch painter in Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” (1956) as did Tim Roth in Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” (1990). Now, painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel has added another fascinating look at this short, sad, well-documented life.
Willem Dafoe, one of the most underrated actors working in Hollywood, is nothing short of riveting as Van Gogh, offering a portrayal that brings this fragile man to life. The actor illuminates how, living day to day in a struggle with mental illness and poverty, this artist still could create some of the most inspired paintings of the 19th Century.
As a painter himself, Schnabel is the perfect director to explore this complex genius, clearly understanding the sacrifices necessary for great art. I don’t know Schnabel’s art, but as a film artist he has shown himself to be an inventive filmmaker and superb director of actors. His 2007 film, “The Diving Bell and Butterfly” is one of the best movies of this century.
Like previous van Gogh films, the charismatic Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) steals his scenes—Anthony Quinn won an Oscar as him in the 1956 film—as he befriends Vincent after Theo van Gogh (Rupert Friend) helps him sell some of his paintings. Vincent and Gauguin go to Arles in the south of France to paint, until van Gogh’s paranoia breaks the friendship.
“At Eternity’s Gate” is less concerned about biographical details than capturing Vincent’s mental state that resulted in both amazing art and a lonely, depressing life that ended at age 37. Looking into Dafoe’s clear, hypnotic eyes is like travelling back to the 1870s and searching for answers about this simple man whose paintings now sell for tens of millions of dollars. Unquestionably, Dafoe deserves an Oscar for his rigorous, intense portrayal.
Near the end of the film, a priest (played by Mads Mikkelsen, the distinctive Dutch actor), who runs the institution where van Gogh lives, tells his patient how “ugly” one of his painting is, thinking he is just wasting his life. But he’s clearly astonished by van Gogh’s explanation of art and the place it holds in his life. This madman sees what others cannot.
Writer-director Adam McKay, as he did with “The Big Short,” never lets you forget you are watching a cinematic creation. I’m naturally resistance to this collage-style of filmmaking, with its mixture of news reports, partisan documentary, over-the-top satire (fake closing credits roll 40 minutes into the film) and traditional narrative storytelling. Thoroughly entertaining and eviscerating, “Vice” may be the most original bio-pic I’ve ever seen.
Dick Cheney, protege of longtime Republican insider Donald Rumsfeld, went on to one of the most successful political “supporting” players in U.S. history. He became President Ford’s chief of staff, spent 10 years as a Wyoming congressman, served as President George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary, spent the Clinton years as Halliburton CEO and then was an unusually powerful vice president for George W. Bush. What the film posits is that Cheney, first under Rumsfeld’s guidance and then later with his own team, gamed the system to shift decision-making power to the executive branch, taking advantage of an easily influenced George W. to fashion a very different America in the wake of Sept. 11.
Christian Bale delivers yet another chameleon performance, completely altering his body and voice to become a very convincing Cheney (though he’s a bit old to play the younger version). But more than the physical likeness, Bale, through McKay’s fine script, nails the conniving, ruthless, razor-focused thought process that made Cheney so effective.
Sam Rockwell gives yet another spot-on supporting performance as good-old boy George, while Steve Carrell is outstanding as the ultimate power-grubbing, cynical Rumsfeld and Amy Adams gives a Lady Macbeth-like turn as Lynne Cheney. In one of the film’s most unusual turns, the narrator (Jesse Plemons) eventually becomes an on-screen character in the movie.
But this is really McKay’s show as he channels the agitprop filmmaking of Michael Moore and Oliver Stone and the loopy surrealism of Wes Anderson to fashion a portrait of Cheney that the man himself might enjoy.
The director does overplay his hand, especially near the end when Cheney undergoes heart transplant surgery, or earlier when he has Dick and Lynne recite Shakespeare verse, yet this whirlwind of a film is at its best when it exposes the ease that the ship of state can be steered into dark waters. As we witnessed daily in 2018, all it takes is one very determined man who refuses to play by the rules.
Alfonzo Cuarón’s new film represents a sharp left turn from his best-known films, “Children of Men” and Oscar-winner “Gravity,” as he takes an unsentimental journey into his experiences growing up in a Mexico City neighborhood.
As seen through the eyes of nanny Cleo (a stoic, but unforgettable Yalitza Aparicio), the family is thoroughly ordinary, at least until the husband leaves them for a younger woman. Even that doesn’t offer much excitement, as the mother (Marina de Tavira) keeps the children in the dark about the real reason their father isn’t around.
Cleo, after a brief affair with a self-indulgent martial arts enthusiast, finds herself pregnant, which introduces poignancy into this otherwise emotionally remote film.
There is something about a skillful director (Cuarón also serves as his DP on the black-and-white film) putting his youth on film—even when it’s rather unremarkable—that spurs critics to become enraptured. Part of the appeal is the leisurely pace and the downplaying of dramatic (Hollywood) acting he utilizes. Obviously influenced by the style of French New Wave director Agnès Varda, Cuarón fills the picture with slow panning shots across both interior and exterior sets. Varda made this her trademark, capturing street life in early features like “La Pointe Courte” (1955) and “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962). Nothing wrong with copping from legendary filmmakers, but style alone doesn’t make for good cinema.
To me, of the seven Cuarón feature films I’ve seen, this is the least impressive and, most certainly, the least entertaining.
I laughed once during the film: When the family goes to the cinema to see “Marooned,” the 1969 American film about a rescue attempt to save astronauts stuck in space. Clearly, Cuarón never forgot that film, using it as inspiration for “Gravity.” A few more off-beat moments like that could have elevated what now plays like a lovely photographed, but self-indulgent, art film.
GREEN BOOK (2018)
This is the feel-good movie of the year—and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Based on a true story (though not very truthful according to relatives of Don Shirley), the film shows the persistent racism that remained in the 1960s, especially throughout the South, as seen through the experiences of Shirley, a black pianist, and his driver for the tour, Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer.
Shirley, played with imperious arrogance by Mahershala Ali, is a classically trained musician who rakes in the cash by playing sophisticated pop—a hideous but popular genre (think Liberace) that thankfully disappeared by the early ‘70s—for white, country-club crowds. Shirley wants it both ways: He plays Uncle Tom while performing, yet expects to be treated with dignity off-stage (he insists on being called “Dr. Shirley”) instead of like the hired help.
Viggo Mortensen is a bit more believable, playing the bigoted driver who, temporarily losing his job as a doorman at the Copacabana nightclub, takes the driving gig out of desperation. It’s never clear if Tony starts out as a racist or just acts like one because of everyone’s attitude around him.
The plot, and virtually every scene, as directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber”), plays out predictable and the characters evolve exactly as you know they will from the opening scenes. The film is filled with stereotypes and tropes used for obvious laughs or shocks for those unfamiliar with America in the 1960s.
The audience is meant to be aghast when Shirley admits that he doesn’t know (and love) contemporary black music like Tony does. The film takes the stereotype one step further when the pair visit a bar frequented by African-Americans featuring an R&B band. When Shirley is coaxed on stage and begins performing, he comes alive, finally enjoying being on stage. It is as if a black man can only be satisfied by playing “his people’s” popular music.
While “Green Book” doesn’t quite stoop to “Driving Miss Daisy” levels, it certainly doesn’t deserve the accolades it has received or the coming Oscar nominations. This is a Lifetime movie of the week for those who still need to be reminded what American racism looks like.
THE FAVOURITE (2018)
Of the two British monarchy films released at the end of the year, “The Favourite” has won the critics’ eye, while “Mary Queen of Scots” (see below) has mostly been dismissed as over-hyped history. But, to me, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ concoction about a pair of cousins seeking favor with Queen Anne, who ruled for just 12 years in the early 1700s, plays like a stitched-together collection of odd scenes with little or no substance or consequence.
In an outstanding performance, veteran British actress Olivia Colman portrays Anne as a repulsive, pitiful, mentally unstrung woman who deserves the crown about as much as her pet rabbits. She’s shown as an uninterested pawn of Lady Sarah (a rather overwrought Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s military husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), who convinced her to ignore her advisers and continue the war against France. Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up in search of a handout from distance relatives and quickly sees a way to supplant Sarah as the queen’s confidante.
I didn’t find much of the one-upmanship or the way Queen Anne is made to look a fool very funny. At times, it felt as if the lead actress and her director were working toward different goals. Lanthimos, first and foremost a stylist, brings a distinctive look to the film, which feels contemporary despite its 19th Century setting.
What worked for me in “The Lobster,” didn’t in this film. While there’s enough well-staged scenes and off-beat acting to keep one’s attention, the film never sticks with a tone or convinces me that this is a tale worth telling.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018)
Few historical dramas not written by Shakespeare (the Bard was born during the events of this story) have endured like the rivalry between royal cousins Elizabeth and Mary in the late 16th Century.
When Mary returns to Scotland after spending most of her life in France, where she served as queen consort before her husband’s death, she immediately divides the country and raises concerns in London. Under her half-brother (James McArdle), an uneasy alliance was maintained between Catholics and Protestants, but with Mary back, no one is happy as she managed to insult leaders of both religions. In fact, she seems to be more interested in establishing a road to the British throne for her future heirs than ruling Scotland.
It becomes a race to marry Mary to the “right” man and produce a future king. Back in England, Elizabeth, despite constant nagging by her closest adviser William Cecil (the always reliable Guy Pearce), remains unmarried and, as we know, will die without an heir.
While it seems obvious now, previous versions of this story never explored the resentment the men serving these queens must have felt. Director Josie Rourke, a veteran of London theater, and screenwriter Beau Willimon, the creator of “House of Cards,” relying on historian John Guy’s recent book on Mary, place the blame for the inability of these two to form an alliance on men with a very different agenda, working against them. It’s a very believable theory, but, of course, the idea of these two powerful women hating one another is a more appealing, dramatically fueling performances through the years by such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett.
Saoirse Ronan, the 24-year-old, three-time Oscar nominee, can be added to this list as she redefines Mary as a determined, educated young monarch, who, despite her smarts, grows way too trusting and ends up being betrayed by those closest to her. Margot Robbie, so impressive as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya” (2017), is a very formidable Elizabeth, who also finds herself undercut by those around her, but withstood all the slings and arrows to run for 44 years. There is something desperate about this Elizabeth, as she hides behind the white makeup and ghastly red wig. And, as we all know, the queens never met, but Hollywood insists on that tête-á-tête in every film.
Standing out among the beards and impressive costumes, is Scottish stage and TV veteran David Tennant playing the firebrand Protestant and misogynist John Knox, who leads rebellions against Mary.
While the political/religious gamesmanship often becomes too convoluted to follow, the acting and the impressive production—cinematographer John Mathieson captures the rugged beauty of the Scottish Highlands along with the dank, cave-like atmosphere of Edinburgh Caste—make “Mary Queen of Scots” serious entertainment, a thoughtful update that makes the 400-year-old story as relevant as the latest headlines.
THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018)
For anyone who wonders why those of us who write about movies put so much emphasis on directors, this 1970s throwback provides the answer.
What could be better than an old-fashioned heist movie with 82-year-old Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker, a career bank robber, and 68-year-old Sissy Spacek as the spunky widow Jewel, who he romances, off and on, for years.
But director David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”) manages to muck it up over and over. Most damaging is the convoluted structure that shifts time frame without any warning and stretching the believability of Redford; even Hollywood make-up masters can’t take 20 years off an 82-year-old.
Another problem that can be laid at the director’s feet are the low-key performances and static direction that depletes whatever energy the story brings to the screen. Sure, those of us who grew up on 1960s-70s films long for more introspective, realistically paced storytelling, but this film moves at the pace of a man using a walker. And it’s about robbing banks.
The biggest miscue to me was the lack of interaction between Redford’s Tucker and his robbery accomplices, played by a pair of charismatic seniors, Tom Waits and Danny Glover. These two wonderful character actors are barely given time to speak. Maybe the interplay ended up on the cutting room floor (or should I say in the desktop recycle bin?), but I’m sure it would have enlivened the picture.
Even though the film is about robberies, there is none of the preparations and anticipation that makes these kind of films interesting; Tucker just walks into small, local banks and says, “give me your money.”
There are some memorable exchanges between the two stars as Tucker tries to keep his true profession under wraps and Jewel does her best to scope out the truth about this entertaining old dude. But it’s not enough to sustain a feature film or save what should have been my favorite film of the year.
FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2017)
Among all the 50 plus actresses struggling to secure the few good roles written for their age group. 60-year-old Annette Bening seems to win most of them, especially if it involves sexuality.
In "Being Julia" (2004), "Running With Scissors" (2006), "The Kids Are Alright" (2010), "20th Century Women" (2016), she's played unsettled middle-aged women who never figured out (or wanted to) how to live a traditional life.
Her latest, released at the end of 2017 in hopes of securing an Oscar nomination, falls into the same category. She plays the fascinating character actor Gloria Grahame, best known for "The Big Heat" and winning the 1952 Oscar for "The Bad and the Beautiful."
The film chronicles her final weeks living in the Liverpool home of a much younger actor she became involved with a few years earlier.
Peter Turner, played by Jamie Bell (star of "Billy Elliot"), was in his late 20s when the 55-year-old Grahame rented a room at the London boarding house where he lived in the 1970s.
The film, with too many confusing flashbacks to different stages of their relationship, never rises above the cliché of a dying diva involved with a younger man. The script just keeps trying to explain their relationship in scene after scene. That should have been the starting point, not the only point.
Also sinking this rather thin drama is Bell, who never convinced me that he had a real bond with this difficult woman. Though the script is based on Turner's memoir of his time with Grahame, he doesn't offer much insight into his character.
But I think they picked the wrong story about Grahame. What would make a hell of a film is her relationship with second husband Nicholas Ray, director of "Rebel Without a Cause" and "In a Lonely Place." Rumor has it that he ended the marriage when he caught her with his teenage son. Then, eight years later, the son became her fourth husband. Now that's the classic Hollywood I want to see on film.
The best scene in the film is when Turner meets Grahame's mother (played by the always luminous Vanessa Redgrave) and her sister, who breaks the news to Turner about Gloria's previous May-Sept relationship.
But let's face it, most contemporary filmgoers wouldn't know Gloria Grahame from Ida Lupino. The character comes off as just another Hollywood, self-centered ditz without enough substance for even Bening to do much with it.