In 18th century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) becomes ill and has her best friend, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) taking care of her. When a new servant, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives, Queen Anne gradually befriends her making her Lady Sarah's rival for who will be the queen's favorite.
The Favourite brims with a witty, darkly humorous and biting screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and lavish costume and set designs. In other words, it's music to one's ears and eyes simultaneously. It's a subversively funny period piece that's like Barry Lyndon on acid. Each of the actors gives a wonderful performance, but the performance Olivia Colman reigns supreme. Every single one of her scenes are exceptional, mesmerizing and/or poignant, i.e. the scene when she talks about her traumatic past by using her many rabbits as a metaphor. Queen Anne is an enigma wrapped up in even more enigma, but Colman knocks it out of the ballpark with her multi-layered performance. The Favourite cements director Yorgos Lanthimos as an auteur in every sense of the term. He's brilliant, bold and intelligent, and it shows throughout his films. Although, The Favourite doesn't have a political message or any clear-cut messages, it speaks volumes about the dark side of human nature. After watching it, you'll be tempted to watch it a few more times just to absorb all of its brilliance. It's a cult classic that won't please everyone, but if you're open to unconventional films and enjoyed Lanthimos' previous films, you'll cherish this one for many years to come.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a housekeeper for a middle-upper class family in the Roma district of Mexico City. She comes from an indigenous Mexican tribe called Mixtec, but her employers explicitly tell her not to speak her native language. When she meets Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), she falls in love with him and they develop a romance.
The screenplay by writer/director Alfonso Cuarón is intelligent nuanced and thoroughly engrossing. It's the kind of film that's not easy to describe with words because it's much more than the sum of its parts and it transcends words. Cuarón has a lot to say about class division and race division, but he does so without preachiness and in an understated way. He trusts the audience's emotions, intelligence and patience which is a risk that pays off. Every scene is rich with detail and humanism. The black-and-white cinematography looks mesmerizing and has many haunting visual that, coupled with the non-intrusive musical score, serves as a form of poetry. It's the kind of epic that makes you forget that you're watching a black-and-white or even a foreign film for that matters because you're so absorbed by it.
Yalita Aparacio gives a breakthrough performance that ought to be nominated for awards. She's a natural talent and finds the emotional truth within the role of Cleo. You can tell that there's an inner life to Cleo not only because of the screenplay, by because of Aparacio who makes Cleo's inner life palpable. If there's a better film than Roma this year, I haven't seen it yet. It's a masterpiece in every sense of the word with exceptional directing, screenwriting, acting, cinematography, editing and sound designs. Most importantly, though, it has a beating heart, a soul and a brain. From first frame to last, Roma is a work of art that has to be experienced on the big screen. It will probably be discussed and analyzed in film schools and referenced for many years to come.
At Eternity's Gate
Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) spends his final years in France while his mental health declines. His brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), visits him every now and then, and he also meets the French painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).
Despite a strong performance by Willem Dafoe, At Eternity's Gate is a shallow, tedious and monotonous biopic that fails to bring a famous painter to life. The screenplay by Louise Kugelberg, Jean-Claude Carriere and Julian Schnabel offers very little information about van Gogh which is forgivable, but by the end of the film, you never really get to the send that you got to know van Gogh nor cared about him as a human being. There's not much dialogue, and the cinematography makes the film seem very experimental more often than not. Experimentalism doesn't always pay off, though. A scene with a lot of shaky-cam lasts too long and quickly becomes nauseating. Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a far superior film that had both style and substance. At Eternity's Gate's style gets in the way of its substance which is sorely lacks thereby leaving audiences underwhelmed. It's a squandered opportunity to tell the story of a fascinating artist battling his inner demons.
Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and accepts a new one which requires him to leaves home to fight wildfires. His son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), and wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) remain at home. Jeanette begins a romance with an older man, Warren (Bill Camp), despite Joe's disapproval. When Jerry returns home, he must come to terms with the fact that his marriage is on the rocks.
Wildlife is the directorial debut of writer/director Paul Dano. It's a heartfelt and tender portrait of family that becomes gradually dysfunctional. The characters are flawed which makes them all the more human and relatable even though the choices they make, such as Jeanette cheating on Jerry, make them not very likable. Joe is the only character who's very likable much like Mason in Boyhood. The complex dynamics between the characters, though, is what makes the film so fascinating. The morning after Jerry leaves Jeanette alone with Joe, she shows signs of emotional incest when she says something intimate to Joe that she should only tell her husband, not her son. That scene has shades of Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart. There are also shades of Ordinary People and Death of a Salesman throughout the film, especially family photo scene that's reminiscent of the classic family photo scene in Ordinary People. Dano does a great job of incorporating very gentle comic relief into drama makes it less heavy and more palatable. He also includes some though-provoking metaphors and avoids melodrama. The cinematography is also exquisite with quite a number of scenes that have camerawork that enriches the film without dialogue. Bravo to Dano for recognizing the power of quiet moments.
Carey Mulligan gives a convincingly moving performance as does the always-reliable Jake Gyllenhaal, and the underrated Ed Oxenbould is also exceptional. The only minor, but forgivable flaw of the film is a contrived scene toward the end that leaves too many questions unanswered when Jerry does something that's out-of-character. Those few minutes feel rushed and implausible unlike the rest of the film. At a running time of 104 minutes, Wildlife is as powerful and moving as Ordinary People.
Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) is the lead singer of Something She, a punk band. She's exhausted, depressed, addicted to drugs and has a dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Ania (Virginia Madsen), and her ex-husband (Dan Stevens). Before she hits rock bottom, she retreats to a house in a suburban neighborhood to bond with her daughter and try to get her mental and physical back on track while grappling with her traumatic past.
Elisabeth Moss gives a bravura, tour de force performance in a film that feels like it's two films wrapped in one. The first hour of Her Smell is a tedious, loud and nauseating immersion into the experiences of Becky as a musician. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry resorts to too much shaky cam that's more headache inducing than exhilarating, but perhaps that's the point. If you can get past that first hour, which is a chore to get through, you'll be rewarded with a much more quiet and drama that becomes a mildly engaging character study of a woman who's suffering a mental breakdown and has yet to face the harsh truths of her traumatic past.
Does the running time have to be 2 hours and 15 minutes? Not at all. Perry could have easily cut at least 30 minutes from the first act that overstays its welcome very quickly. More scenes with Becky and her mother would've also helped to provide more depth. Her Smell offers nothing new or surprising nor does it have anything profound to say about fame, mental health, drug addiction or dysfunctional families, but it does offer a career-best performance by Elisabeth Moss who's the film's heart and soul every step of the way.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), a.k.a. Fonny, have been friends since childhood. At the age of 19, Tish falls in love with him and they get engaged to be married. However, Alonza goes to prison for a crime that he didn't commit when he crosses paths with a racist police officer. Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) accuses him of sexual assault. Tish's mother, Sharon (Regina King), desperately tries to set her soon-to-be son-in-law free by traveling to Puerto Rico to persuade Victoria to withdraw her accusation against Fonny.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins tells a love story and a crime drama in an unconventional way. Visually, the film looks sumptuous and almost dreamlike at times with great use of lighting, set design and camerawork. You can feel the warmth of the images radiating from the screen. The performances by Kiki Layne, Stephan James and, especially, Regina King are all superb. It's also worth mentioning the evocative musical score. It's unfortunate, though, that the screenplay is a bit shallow and fails to provide enough of a window inside the heart, mind and soul of its characters.
Many scenes have visual poetry and speak louder than words, so it's hard to look away from the screen. However, you never really get to know the characters well enough to care about them as human beings, and the romance between Tish and Fonny isn't very palpable. This is the kind of film where style gets in the way of its substance. Perhaps a more natural, Cassavetes-like approach would've made If Beale Street Could Talk for more emotionally resonant and powerful. At least the terrific performances and the cinematography help to elevate the film ever so slightly above mediocrity.
Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) has just finished writing a book that his friend, Alain (Guillaume Canet), a book publisher, refuses to publish. Alain's wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress, is having an affair with Alain who's also having an affair with someone. Léonard's wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), has no clue about her husband's infidelity. The book that Léonard has written incorporates the experiences of his and his friends, but it blurs the line between reality and fiction concurrently.
Non-Fiction is a cerebral, fascinating and funny French dramedy that's filled with razor-sharp social commentary. It has a lot to say about modern technology, i.e. when Selena jokes that Twitter is nothing more than modern haikus. Anyone looking for action, suspense or thrills should look elsewhere because the screenplay by writer/director Olivier Assayas has a lot of dialogue with characters engaged in conversations, many of which are witty. Each of the characters is interesting in their own way and, most importantly, very intelligent. Their conversations sound very natural and have a very organic rhythm. These are the kind of people who you wish you could spend dinner conversing with in spite of their flaws. Like most French films, there's plenty of wine-drinking, eating and people sleeping around. They quip, banter and debate with each other. Assayas gives a light touch to the film with great use of comic relief that makes its cerebral quality far from dry or dull.
Moreover, the wonderful cast adds plenty of charm and charisma onscreen. It's hard to imagine an American remake being as effective because there's something unique about French actors' charm and the French language itself. Assayas does a great job of finding the humanism within people doing something as deceptively simple as conversing. That along is a spectacle that's far more special and palpable than the so-called spectacle of CGI found in too many films these days. Non-Fiction is an enchanting, profound and thoroughly engaging experience that's like a French My Dinner with Andre, but with 4 friends who are actors and writers instead just 2 friends. 106 minutes fly by like 80 minutes.
During the Cold War in 1950's Poland, Wictor (Tomasz Kot), a music director, meets and falls in love with a singer, Zula (Joanna Kulig). For the next fifteen years, their relationship evolves as the political climate changes. Wictor tries to convince Zula to feel to Paris, France.
Pawel Pawlikowski has done it again. Ida was a mesmerizing, haunting and moving experience, and the same can be said dabout Cold War. Both films have breathtaking cinematography, charismatic leads and a nuances that treat the audience as mature, intelligent human beings. This isn't a conventional war film that's violent and gritty; there's emotional grit instead which is far more powerful. Pawlikowski has a great command over the camerawork, the costume designs, lighting as well as the musical score. All of those elements come together to create an enchanting, poignant and spellbinding symphony of emotions that resonate from start to finish. You can feel the passion between Wictor and Zula, and you root for them to be together. Conversely, you're sad when they're apart due to circumstances beyond their control.
There's not a single moment throughout Cold War that doesn't ring true which is yet another testament to the skills of its talented director. The fact that he keeps the running time down to just 90 minutes shows just how disciplined he is, and how he understands the concept of "less is more." If Cold War were 3 hours, though, it would still be just as captivating because the characters and story feel as rich as a novel. The film's images and emotion will linger in your mind long after the end credits roll which is something that can't be said for many films.
Happy as Lazzaro
Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) works slavishly on a tobacco farm under reigns of his domineering boss, Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). When he befriends her rebellious son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), he agrees to hatch a plan to fake Tancredi's kidnapping. Tancredi leaves to the big city, and Lazzaro travels there to search for him.
The screenplay by writer/director Alice Rohrwacher deftly blends drama, social commentary, political commentary with surreal, fairy tale elements. Rohrwacher leaves plenty of room for interpretation, especially when it comes to the nature of the relationship between Lazzaro and Tancredi. Initially, it seems like it might turn into something like Brokeback Mountain, but it doesn't quite go there. Once Lazzaro goes on a quest to find Tancredi, that's when the film becomes increasingly bizarre and Felliniesque with some use of metaphors. The less you know about what transpires to Lazzaro at that point, the better because there are some surprises and twists that you won't see coming. A few scenes might even seem confusing, but they make more sense when you think about them in retrospect and try to contemplate their meaning.
In many ways, Happy as Lazzaro can be seen as an allegory. It's an enchanting fairy with superb performances, exquisite cinematography and scenery, and a third act that will lead to many interesting discussions and debates. You might feel like you have to see it more than once just to grasp all of its brilliance. Yes, the running time is quite lengthy at 2 hours and 10 minutes, but there's not a single scene that's boring or lethargic.
In High Life,
Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), are the last remaining people on board of a spacecraft. He's among the ship's prisoners including Tcherny (André Benjamin) and Boyse (Mia Goth). Juliette Binoche plays Dr. Dibs, a mad scientist who performs experiments on her patience. The screenplay by writer/director Claire Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau is a convoluted mess that becomes increasingly preposterous as the plot progresses. The non-linear storytelling just makes it all the more confusing even with Monte's voice-over narration. Denis essentially takes an intriguing concept and tries to subvert it in an clever way, but it often falls flat and quickly becomes lethargic. None of the characters are memorable nor developed well enough to be worth caring about. Even the breathtaking cinematography doesn't compensate for the screenplay's many shortcomings. At a running time of 110 minutes, High Life is a dull mind-fuck that's not fun nor intelligent like far better mind-fucks that have became classics, i.e. 2001 and Solaris. It suffers from too much style, but not nearly enough substance. A24 opens it in select theaters on April 12th, 2019. For a more conventional film done well, look no further than writer/director Tamara Jenkins's Private Life, a dramedy about a married couple, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), who struggle with fertility issues as they go from what fertility therapy to another in hopes of getting Rachel pregnant. The screenplay is witty, wise and funny with just the right balance of humor and tenderness along with natural performances by the underrated Kathryn Hahn and the always-reliable Paul Giamatti. Both characters come across as likable despite their flaws and also somewhat relatable. Jenkins aims for realism, although it's not stark realism like a Ken Loach film, but it all feels believable enough so that you're immersed in the lives of two desperate people. If Private Life weren't so entertaining or true-to-life, its running time of 2 hours would've been a chore to sit through. Fortunately, it feels more like 90 minutes. In the 90's, this film could've easily been a wide theatrical release by a major studio. Netflix release it day-and-date on October 5th, 2018. Writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters is not among his best films like Still Walking, Maborosi or Nobody Knows, but it's nonetheless a worthy edition to his oeuvre of poignant family dramas. Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son come from an impoverished family who resort to shoplifting to make ends meet. One day, they come across a young girl walking alone in the cold and decide to take her in as their own. Meanwhile, the cops search for the missing girl as does her family. Shoplifters is a slow-burning drama that's understated and nuanced just like Kore-ada's previous films. It's less about character and plot; it's more about the feelings and atmosphere that's generated from the actors and cinematography that elevates the film. To be fair, it does require a lot of one's patience to be fully absorbed by the film. The visual poetry isn't quite as powerful as the more captivating slow-burn Roma. Its first act is engaging and its third act feels heartbreaking, but in between, the second act meanders more often than not. Shoplifters opens in select theaters via Magnolia Pictures on November 23rd, 2018. American Dharma, directed by Errol Morris, is a documentary portrait of Donald Trump's political advisor, Steve Bannon. Although it's stylishly edited with clips (too many!) from films that Bannon considers inspirational like Twelve O'Clock High and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Morris does a poor job of getting inside the head of his subject. Everyone has a front-stage life and a backstage life behind the curtain. American Dharma simply doesn't get behind that curtain, and there's nothing at all revealing nor surprising about Bannon. There's even an awkward scene where Morris allows Bannon to turn the tables on him by Bannon interviewing him instead. It barely skims the surface as Bannon continues to make broad statements about his view on politics, the economy and more. This is a squandered opportunity to shed light on a very controversial individual. The documentary portrait that Morris made about Donald Rumsfeld, The Known Unknown, and Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, were far more illuminating and powerful. For a much more unique documentary experience, look no further than Your Face. Director Tsai Ming-liang merely points the camera at the faces of a bunch of people one by one without interviewing them. Some of them cry, some of them sleep, some of them laugh, some of them smoke, and some even talk. It can best be described as a warm, unflinching roller-coaster ride of human emotions. There's no narrative; just life itself which is brimming with humanism, a truly special effect. At 1 hour and 16 minutes, it's an engrossing experience that requires some patience, but it never overstays its welcome. In a shallow world that's becoming increasingly dehumanizing thanks to the advancement modern technology, Your Face is as refreshing cool breeze on a hot summer day. If you're a humanist, it's a must-see.