Holiday Weekend Lightning Round

The Daily — Nov 20, 2018
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018)

After the last crumb of pumpkin pie crust has been dabbed off the plate, chances are, if you’re reading this, one of your first inclinations will be to spend what remains of the long holiday weekend at the movies. What follows is absolutely not a comprehensive overview of every film currently listed on every marquee in the country, but rather, a few pointers to a selection of some of the most significant writing about a handful of films opening within the past week or two that are all but guaranteed to appear on a good number of best-of-2018 lists.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma has already topped one of those lists, Stephanie Zacharek’s in Time. The winner of the Golden Lion in Venice is based on Cuarón’s memories of growing up in the titular neighborhood in Mexico City in the 1970s and focuses on a family very much like his own as seen through the eyes of their maid and nanny (played by nonprofessional actor Yalitza Aparicio). “Cuarón uses one household on one street to open up a world, working on a panoramic scale often reserved for war stories, but with the sensibility of a personal diarist,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “It’s an expansive, emotional portrait of life buffeted by violent forces, and a masterpiece.”

Netflix will begin streaming Roma around the world on December 14, but starting this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, it’ll be putting the film in theaters as well. Some theaters. Dargis has been tweeting out lists of cities and dates as Roma rolls out further on November 29 and December 6 and 14. At Slate, Dana Stevens adds, “I rarely get evangelical about viewing modalities, but if there’s any way to do so where you live, please get yourself to a real theater to see this. So much of what’s special about it—the widescreen compositions, the complex sound mix, the fluid shifts in scale—would be lost on a home TV screen, much less a laptop. Roma is hypnotic and transporting and sublime, everything a movie seen on the big screen ought to be.”

Netflix has put another of its films in theaters as well, Joel and Ethan Coen’s western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Most critics prefer one or another of the six tales, but overall, reviews have been generally positive. Vulture’s David Edelstein suggests that the Coens’ latest “might be their bleakest work of all, and one of their richest . . . For all the Coens’ relish for old Westerns, the landscape of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a stark canvas for depicting the ways in which humans blindly strive and have their hopes dashed. But no nihilists could have made this film.” Fresh Air’s Terry Gross interviews the Coens, and Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold has spoken with one of their stars, Zoe Kazan.

Particularly since the release coincides with the publication of Adam Nayman’s new book, The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, there’s been a lot of reassessing—and ranking—of the oeuvre. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody focuses on just one title, The Big Lebowski (1998), “one of the great American political films.” Meantime, fellow Toronto critic Angelo Muredda talks with Nayman about the themes running through the body of work, and eventually, of course, the conversation turns to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. “As a movie about death—what it means to die, to not live anymore, to live with the weight of a loved one’s death or having caused somebody’s death—I can’t help but feel it’s on the path of maturity,” says Nayman. “Obviously they’re going to make more movies, but if this were to be it, when you watch the final segment and hear what the characters are talking about: pretty good.”

Since his death in 1890, Vincent van Gogh has become an “industry, a revenue stream, a case history, a cautionary tale, and a cult,” as Anthony Lane observes in his piece for the New Yorker on the wide array of cinematic incarnations of the artist directed by filmmakers as varied as Vincente Minnelli, Akira Kurosawa (“Hello, it’s Martin Scorsese!”), Robert Altman, and Maurice Pialat. Van Gogh, writes Lane, “has been anointed—and travestied—as the ideal of the modern artist, even by those for whom art, modern or otherwise, is at best a diversion and at worst a scam.”

Willem Dafoe (interviewed by Joshua Encinias for the Film Stage and by Peter Rinaldi for Filmmaker) is the latest to portray Vincent in painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, which, as the title suggests, focuses on the artist’s later years. The not-to-be-missed review is Tony Pipolo’s for Artforum (you’ll have to scroll through his pan of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away first). “Hand-held and geared to the protagonist’s physical and psychic being, the camera even when it is not moving, is at the heart of the film’s conception,” argues Pipolo. “Shivering like a nervous system on drugs, every frame stuns with conviction and immediacy. If avant-garde giant Stan Brakhage had made narrative movies, this is how they might have looked.”

By now you’ll have heard that Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite is set in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), where her close friend (Rachel Weisz) and a new servant (Emma Stone) vie for her affection. Now that the film, which has already scooped up several awards, is finally opening in theaters, Lanthimos is suddenly everywhere. Hunter Harris interviews him for Vulture, and Alexandra Kleeman goes long in her profile for the New York Times. Here’s an observation that stands out: “Auteurs like Luca Guadagnino or Paolo Sorrentino, with their swooping, reeling shots and kinetic dance sequences, may get more credit for capturing bodily experience on film, but Lanthimos arguably shows greater fidelity to our actual bodies, stubborn and awkwardly choreographed by fate, etiquette and overarching structures of power—not glamorous bodies but bodies of ungainly yearning.” As for The Favourite, it “marks a true shift in his emotional palette. Rather than keep the viewer at arm’s length, this new film works to draw you into the palace intrigue.”

At the Ringer, Manuela Lazic argues that Lanthimos “continues with each new film to test his belief in both the cruelty of organized society and the goodness that lies (dormant) within people. Lanthimos’s cinema, in that sense, is deeply and heartbreakingly honest, rather than cruel or nihilistic—and honesty is the mystery at the core of The Favourite’s power plays.”

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, depicts an ad hoc family struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Tokyo. “This is the masterpiece that Kore-eda has been building towards for much of the twenty-first century, the staggering culmination of a cinematic inquiry that has motivated the most brilliant stretch of his body of work,” argues IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. At Slate, Inkoo Kang observes that Shoplifters “strenuously resists romanticizing its main characters. Its compassion is more convincing for it. So is its brilliance.” K. Austin Collins, Michael Koresky, and Aliza Ma discuss Shoplifters in the context of other films about families on the new Film Comment Podcast.

The movie has been a big hit in Japan, where, as Noriki Ishitobi reports for the Asahi Shimbun, it’s also been “subjected to criticism on social networking sites for ‘depicting the shame of Japan’ while using government funding to make the film and that it was ‘endorsing criminal activities.’” For his part, Kore-eda argues that “culture will die if obedience to power becomes a requisite for receiving public funding.” He also finds it “alarming that in today’s society, people completely detach themselves from those who resort to crime.” Meantime, Kore-eda has already begun working on his next feature, the first he’ll have made outside of Japan, The Truth About Catherine, starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke.

Steve McQueen’s Widows, in which four women (played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo) plan to complete a heist their late husbands botched, was met with strong reviews when it premiered in Toronto. For the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, it’s “the type of movie that Hollywood too rarely bankrolls anymore: a mid-budget crackerjack crowdpleaser for adults . . . If Widows is pulp, it’s pulp made with intelligence and craft and an urgent social conscience.” In the New York Times, though, A. O. Scott finds that it’s “a fascinating and sometimes frustrating hybrid, a film that tries both to transcend and to exploit its genre.”

Let’s squeeze in a mention of a film seeing a very limited release, Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys, “a supremely assured piece of craftsmanship, evincing an active creative engagement and ample imagination in every minute of its nearly two-hour runtime,” according to Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot. Five adolescent boys (all played by women) commit a savage crime and, as punishment, a cruel captain ships them to an enchanted island. “Festooning Mandico’s far-out scenario are segments that call to mind those of the sainted cine-poet Jean Vigo and the queer cinema holy dreamers Jack Smith and James Bidgood,” writes Melissa Anderson at 4Columns, adding that “other tableaux in The Wild Boys resemble ’90s TV ads for Calvin Klein’s Eternity. Like its horndog teenagers, the film is promiscuous.” 

We can’t wrap this holiday weekend roundup without including a movie that promises fun for the whole family. The clear winner in this crowded field is Ralph Breaks the Internet, Phil Johnston and Rich Moore’s sequel to their animated Disney feature from 2012, Wreck-It Ralph. The story hardly matters, but essentially, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vannelope (Sarah Silverman) are unleashed from the world of their video games out into the wild frontier of the internet. In the New York Times, Bilge Ebiri suggests that “somewhere amid the film’s ornate imagery and deliriously irreverent humor, we might begin to realize that we’re watching a terrifying, incisive satire about the ways that a life lived online makes monsters of us all.”

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