It’s been a while since the Coen Brothers had a bona fide directing hit on their hands. Not that Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar! weren’t decent pictures in their own right, but they didn’t exactly shine with the kind of classic Coen wit and visual sharpness we’ve come to expect. Sure, 2010’s True Grit pretty much reached its full potential in the best way possible, even arguably eclipsing its John Wayne counterpart, but I’d argue that the last truly great Coen Brothers movie that was brandished with their signature idiosyncrasies was 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Well, regardless, the wait for another classic Coen venture is over, as they’ve partnered with Netflix to bring us The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part anthology film set in the old west. Now normally I’m a little hot and cold on anthology films, seeing as some entries are bound to be better than others, the recent V/H/S trilogy coming to mind. But where those films falter is simply stapling together short films from distinct creators who didn’t collaborate and calling it a complete picture. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, however, is all Coen Brothers all the time, meaning all six chapters feel just as unique but not so much that they aren’t thematically and tonally connected. It actually reminds me of one of my favorite comedies of all time, the 2014 Argentinian film Wild Tales. Seriously, check it out if you can find it. While Buster Scruggs might be playing on the more somber side, it’s just as riotous when it wants to be and will be one of the best you’ll see all year, on streaming or otherwise.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs tells six tales total. First, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” features the eponymous character (Tim Blake Nelson) moseying from town to town giving fellers lessons in manners and elocution before his sordid past comes to greet him. In “Near Algodones,” a cowboy (James Franco) is caught holding up a bank and subsequently sentenced to be hanged, but the ceremony is complicated when Comanches invade. “Meal Ticket” centers on an impresario (Liam Neeson) who ushers a limbless artist (Harry Melling) from gig to gig, in which he orates famous passages. However, the impresario may be contemplating an alternate act. “All Gold Canyon” opens on a prospector (Tom Waits) doggedly searching for a nearby gold vein, unbeknownst to the fact that he’s being watched. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” one Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) joins a traveling party bound for Oregon with her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays), who plans to arrange a marriage for her upon their arrival. Things are thrown up in the air however when Gilbert unexpectedly dies. Lastly, “The Mortal Remains” Sees five stagecoach passengers – including two bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) – pass the time by waxing philosophical and existential.
Don’t let the drab summarizations fool you; every single tale is stamped with Western excitement and intrigue, even the concluding one which is practically all dialogue. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d go with “Meal Ticket,” just because it showcases the Coens uncanny ability to harness the most potent comedy in the most melancholy tales. But as it stands all are expertly crafted stories of unpredictability and happenstance, putting the wild in “Wild West” in the most grounded but refreshing way possible. Not to mention the performances are ubiquitously powerful and perfectly pitched to suit their entry, the roles perfectly casted at that. Be they inhabited by an instantly recognizable A-lister or a dependable character actor, pretty much everyone shines. I find it kind of old hat when a movie opens with the corresponding book being leafed through, á la Shrek, for instance, but Buster Scruggs definitely earned it. Even though each tale only lasts an average of twenty-two minutes, the richness of the writing and the execution of the performances easily make it feel like these characters are novel-deep, like we’ve already been following their story for 300+ pages. In short, this is the best Coen Brothers movie in years, and if you have Netflix, you have no excuse not to watch it right now.
Final Score: 10/10
Seems like these days the only credentials you need to direct is to have been on a movie set a few times. I’m exaggerating, obviously, as I’m sure it’s much more complicated, but here we have another actor working his magic behind the camera as well as in front of it. Well, technically speaking, this is Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing effort, having done the psychological thriller The Gift in 2015. At first I figured that one to be something of a fluke, having low expectations for it and being fairly surprised. But now that Boy Erased has come out and is even better, I’m beginning to think he’s the real deal. Not to mention he wrote both films he directed, in addition to respectable projects like Felony and The Rover. And even though Boy Erased is definitely an actors film, he’s able to lend them – himself included – the kind of platform to give the characterizations the proper heft. Not only that, but in a movie where you’ve got Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges and Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe delivering top-notch performances, he’s still able to hold his own in crafting one of the most human yet despicable antagonists you’ll see in a movie all year.
Based on a memoir of the same name, Boy Erased follows the trials of teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the closeted gay son of Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), the latter of whom is a Baptist preacher. Following a traumatic sexual incident at college, Jared returns home, but not before his parents are informed that he is gay. When Jared confirms this, he is told he must enroll in a gay conversion therapy program known as Love in Action and expel his homosexuality, as it conflicts with their core beliefs. There, he is introduced to one Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), the chief therapist whose rigorous teachings takes a mental tole on Jared and the other patients. Doubtful he’s going to be able to change who he is, Jared will have to confront not only the draconian Sykes but his parents as well, and instead ask them to change.
Well isn’t this just a bucket of fun? Seriously though, this is a tough watch, especially considering that it’s based on true events that happen pretty much all over the country every day. So, if you’re on the other side of the equation, this isn’t going to be the movie for you. Because it does take a stance, and if you are the target demographic like me, it will make you mad, in a good way. That said, what I really liked about it is that it didn’t come outright and let you know what it thought about gay conversion therapy; it fittingly didn’t preach, you might say. Instead, it allows you to develop your own opinion as the characters gradually do the same, thus granting the story the proper breathing room it needs to take shape. That said, it also doesn’t villainize those who are caught between their religion and their sexuality, or those who love someone who is. Instead, it treats them sympathetically as well-meaning but flawed individuals with room to expand their minds and their hearts. It can be a tricky tight-rope to navigate, and even though it does pick a side, it does so steadily and with confidence much like a film like The Hate U Give did last month with its arguably even more hot-button issue. So if your beliefs align with that of the conversion therapy, fair warning, it probably won’t be for you. That said, I think this is an important picture that’s smartly written and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, and should – whichever way you slice it – spark a discourse, which is always good.
Final Score: 9/10
Initially conceived as an Oscar contender on all fronts, things have almost appropriately gone the way of Gary Hart for The Front Runner. With a mixed response from the critics and moviegoers who’ve seen it, the real death knell sounded when it made virtually zero moneys at the box office, an outcome which may be attributed to American audiences having been burnt out on politics in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. You may be asking yourself, “Wait? Didn’t The Post just come out last year and do all the business and get all the nominations?” To which I’ll say yes, but don’t forget it was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, not to mention centered on the journalistic side of the equation. This is a movie about a real-life campaign steeped in controversy, and the wounds are just a little too fresh for most. And I’ll go ahead and put myself in the minority and say that all those factors are disheartening, because The Front Runner is quite good. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it’ll be missed in any of the major categories come February, there’s enough magnetic moving parts to clinch a hell of a comeback year for Jason Reitman, who’s just coming off Tully from this spring, and features one of Hugh Jackman’s finest performances, if not necessarily flashy. It’s just a shame that it’s going to be forgotten so soon.
Set mostly in 1988, The Front Runner centers in on White House hopeful and democrat Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), who is pegged by many to be the favorite for the presidency. Handsome, charismatic and relatively young, Hart seems to have it all, except for an ostensibly faithful marriage to his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) it would seem, as reporters from the Miami Herald target Hart for a story detailing his alleged affair with one Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). What one would ordinarily dismiss as tabloid sleaze soon becomes a national sensation, with Hart’s entire press releases being skewed toward speculation. A staunchly private man, Hart refuses to address the rumors, claiming that the issues regarding his campaign are more important. However, as the American public refuses to let the issue go and his numbers begin declining, Hart must decide if this tidal wave of controversy is worth confronting, or if it’s best to simply walk away.
On the outset, there’s not a whole lot too special about The Front Runner technically or narratively. Until it begins to settle, settle into your skin, that is, as plot slowly gains momentum and the stakes are magnified. Director Jason Reitman takes a very choreographed approach to the material, often opting to let the camera weave through the scenes and highlight each subtle but crucial moment. At first I found this to be somewhat inert, often wondering what it would have been like if it had the same atmosphere David Fincher imprinted on another political drama, one House of Cards. That said, Reitman shows great discipline and consistency, a big step up for him following other lackluster efforts this decade such as Labor Day and Men, Women & Children. And speaking of work done this decade, Hugh Jackman has been having a banner last six years or so, getting to show off his acting chops aplenty between this, Les Misérables and Logan, all supremely different films and roles. While the performance of The Front Runner will keep him out of the Best Actor race, he nevertheless does great work as someone keeping their emotions under the surface for the sake of his family and his country. And it’s worth mentioning that he’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast covering all sides of the central conflict, layering the film with timely themes that the viewer is allowed to individually chew and digest.
Final Score: 8/10
They just can’t seem to get Americans to care about Lisbeth Salander. Which is a shame, seeing as she’s one of the best characters in 21st Century literature. Maybe it’s the whole Swedish thing. Or maybe she’s just past her prime of around a decade a go when those books were selling like hotcakes. Still, we got a good few film adaptations out of it, the Swedish version and the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being tops in the thriller genre of the past decade. While the latter of the two wasn’t quite successful enough to get stars Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig on the fast track to reprise their roles – not to mention get David Fincher to follow up one of his own films for the first time ever – I guess it did do just well enough to cut the budget in half and strike while the iron is at least lukewarm. Nabbing Claire Foy to play the titular character – she having a stellar 2018, having also starred in Unsane and First Man – and getting Fede Álvarez to helm it – he having done the stellar Evil Dead remake and Don’t Breathe – things were looking good for the new-look The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which opted to skip the second and third books in the series and leap right to the as-of-yet unadapted fourth. Looking good, that is, until it came out, and is proving to be quite the critical and commercial dud. And I wish I could say the opposite, having seen all the films and read all the books, but this fifth one overall seems to miss the essence of the character and the story in favor of a sleek but slack espionage thriller that doesn’t pull many punches. That’s not the say those involved don’t do great work, but given the source material, one would hope it’d be more intelligent than generic.
In The Girl in the Spider’s Web, vigilante hacker turned folk legend Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is tasked by computer programer Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) to retrieve his creation Firefall – a program with the capacity to hack any and all nuclear weapons in the world – from the National Security Agency. In doing so, she gains the attention of NSA agent Ed Needham (LaKeith Stanfield), who promptly sets off for Sweden in hopes of intercepting Salander and recovering the program. However, he’s not the only one with his eyes set on it, as a Russian crime syndicate, led by Lisbeth’s long thought to be dead sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), murders Balder and makes off with it. However, turns out the only one with the passcode for the system is Balder’s autistic son August (Christopher Convery), whom Lisbeth must protect with the help of journalist and former lover Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). But to do so, she’ll have to confront her childhood, and the one woman she should have helped, but didn’t.
One of the appeals of Lisbeth Salander and the Millenium series as a whole was how grounded in reality it felt, that even though these scenarios were surely conjured by some writer, you could believe that this woman exists and you could empathize with her plight through rich character development. Not here, however, as they reduce her to that of a technological superhero with a backstory that is so slapdash and rushed it may as well have come in a Happy Meal container. And while this might be the part where those more familiar with the print versions get more of a kick out of it, I unfortunately have to report that they stray greatly from the source material, whereas its predecessors did so extremely sparingly. Usually I’m the guy who rolls his eyes when I hear someone bemoan the fact that a movie changed certain aspects of the book’s story, movies being an entirely different medium and thus require a different approach, but when the alterations made don’t pay off, one can’t help but scratch their head. Hell, the novelization of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is easily my least favorite of the series – the original creator having passed away during the drafting stage – and even I bemoan the lack of reverence for it. While not poorly constructed on any front, it’s easy to see that whoever was calling the shots largely missed the point, from Álvarez’s uncharacteristically restrained direction to Foy’s fine but misguidedly emotive portrayal of the character. Let it not be said that anybody phoned it in, but seeing as this serves as nothing more than a gasp for air for a franchise that should be raking it in entry after entry – with Rooney Mara starring and David Fincher directing, mind you – it’s unsurprising to note that we ended up with a product that’s not fully committed to its source material.
Final Score: 4/10
Yeah, I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t expect a movie done by one half of the directors of Dumb and Dumber and Dumber and Dumber To to be a major awards contender. Then again, it is a road trip comedy, so I guess that follows. While Peter Farrelly doesn’t go too far out of his comfort zone behind the camera, he does deserve some credit – a third, in fact – for Green Book‘s fabulous screenplay, along with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie. That said, they’d be nowhere if the central relationship between the two leads wasn’t firing on all cylinders, so they can thank their lucky stars that it is. While on paper I wouldn’t have pegged Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali to be such a good fit for one another, especially in what is essentially a comedy, but any doubts I had melted away as soon as they got in the car. While you could make the argument that Green Book is perhaps a bit on the light side and takes the easiest route to its destination, it’s packaged in such a way that satiates you in pretty much every respect; not too much grit, too much stuffing, saucy but not so much that it’s wet. In short, it’s the perfect crowd-pleaser that has a little bit of everything to please just about everyone.
Taking place in 1962, Green Book picks up with jack of all trades and conflict de-escalator Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) being laid off after the nightclub he works at undergoes renovations. With a family to feed, Tony is introduced to one Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an renown African-American concert pianist in need of a driver to escort him throughout the Deep South during his eight-week tour. While there is an immediate culture clash between the two of them – Tony’s brusque, undignified behavior against Don’s genteel, elocutionary disposition – Tony begrudgingly accepts the position, and the two soon head out of New York on their long trip. Though initially they each have a narrow assessment of the other, they eventually warm up to their differences, Tony getting Don to come out of his shell and Don expanding Tony’s mind and breaking down his prejudices. However, the farther south they travel, the more perilous their journey becomes, as this newfound friendship will be tested in ways neither could have imagined.
When done right, odd couple movies can be hard to resist, and that’s exactly what I experienced with Green Book. At first I wasn’t too excited about this one, pegging their characters as nothing but archetypes, but I think that’s exactly why I enjoyed it as much as I did. By initially seeing them through a two-dimensional lens, I was allowed the experience of peeling back their layers in tandem with the narrative, finding their characterizations both independently and as a unit to be both charming and hearty. And it doesn’t hurt that both Mortensen and Ali do a bang-up job in their respective roles, sure to give other Oscar hopefuls a run for their money. If we’re going by performance alone, I’d say I like Mortensen to pick up a Best Actor nomination. However, due to some very un-choice use of language during a Q&A session for the film, he might’ve just shot himself in the foot on that front, and will probably end up going the way of James Franco for last year’s The Disaster Artist and miss the cut. Oh well. I was already plenty pleased that he was recognized for his work in 2016’s Captain Fantastic, something that would have normally gone under the radar. Meanwhile, Mahershala Ali is looking good to get a nom for Best Supporting Actor. And though it’s probably a little too early to tell, I’m putting my money on him taking home the prize – if only for an unusual lack of legitimate competition – getting his second in three years following his work in 2016’s Moonlight. Also don’t be surprised if it picks up nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, but don’t expect it to win either. In short, this is a well-acted comedy that doesn’t skimp on the real issues at play, and remains one of the funniest and accessible films of the year.
Final Score: 10/10
Well, let’s go ahead and add this and 2016’s The Jungle Book to the list of twin films, that being the term Wikipedia is referring to the trend as, apparently. In essence, it’s when two nearly identical films from two different studios are released relatively around the same time, both competing for market viability. Think Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. And if history has told us anything, usually one of the films is forgotten as there can be only one, as they say. Well, looks like Warner Bros. anticipated this, as Disney beat them to the punch with their much loved live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale. After several years of release date shifting, hoping they might be able to escape the aftershock, they’ve gone the way of The Cloverfield Paradox and dumped it off to Netflix to save them the trouble of promoting a theatrical release. That said, Netflix did decide to put it in a few theaters to make it eligible for awards consideration, which is technically the only reason why I’m including it among these more traditional releases. While I don’t think it has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting an Oscar nomination for instance, even for Best Visual Effects, it does do some impressive work in that department. Sure, it’ll get compared negatively to the Disney version, but as it stands, it has a deep reverence and understanding for its source material to do it proper narrative justice and deliver an entertaining adventure movie in its own right.
In Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, the eponymous man-cub (Rohan Chand) is discovered by the wolf Akela (Peter Mullan) and his pack as an infant, and is taken in as one of their own. With the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and the sloth bear Baloo (Andy Serkis) serving as the his teachers, Mowgli soon grows into something that can both save the jungle and destroy it. This knowledge is especially not lost on bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), who aims to strike down Mowgli himself as soon as he gets the chance. The fear of this divides Bagheera and Baloo, with the former believing that Mowgli is safest and thus better off with his own kind. When Mowgli is finally told of his origin, giving him more of a reason to view himself as an outcast, he must decide if he is more man than wolf, and whether to defend the jungle or leave it.
While it is virtually the same story, and probably didn’t beg to be told again for the second time in two-and-a-half years, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle does find some room to differentiate itself from its “predecessor,” insofar that it doesn’t replicate scenes beat for beat and puts alternate twists on like characters. It similarly has a fantastic voice cast rounding out the talking animals and does some great motion capture work to bring them all to life, even if it ends up going down the uncanny valley. Between this and 2017’s Breathe, the jury is still out on whether Andy Serkis is going to be a director to be reckoned with, but with an Animal Farm adaptation apparently being his next project, the third time might truly be the charm for him to break out. For now though, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a perfectly fine if unnecessary sophomore effort that boasts stunning visuals and a heartfelt story of survival and belonging. I’m not quite sure if it deserved to be viewed only in people’s living room á la the Netflix model, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Final Score: 6/10
If anyone had a breakout 2017, it was most definitely Tiffany Haddish. And when an actor explodes onto the scene in a single calendar year, it’s usually for a multitude of projects, like when Jessica Chastain was suddenly in everything in 2011 and Alicia Vikander was suddenly in everything in 2015. But Haddish had a single movie that brought her to superstardom, and that was Girls Trip. Stealing every scene among an already top-notch cast, her brash behavioral schtick instantly made her one of the most recognizable actors on the market, which certainly carried over into this year when she appeared in the likes of Uncle Drew, Night School, and now Nobody’s Fool. While I neglected to see the second of those, none of them have been quite able to light up the box office the way last year’s sleeper hit did, and Nobody’s Fool is no exception. And justly so, as not only is it ostensibly the worst of Haddish’s offerings, but one of the worst films of the year. While Haddish continues to do what she does best, her loudmouth antics are wholly misguided in a film that thinks it can get the audience off on that alone. Neglected for inclusion were the likes of a concrete story, conflict, and genuinely funny moments, they being entirely manufactured. Sometimes a movie is so bad at trying to be good it actually becomes enjoyable, and you get classics like Battlefield Earth and The Room. That doesn’t happen so often in the comedy genre, because when it is that bad, it’s painfully so. Enter Nobody’s Fool.
In Nobody’s Fool, successful marketing exec Danica (Tika Sumpter) seems to have it all: a great job, good friends, and a supportive boyfriend. Well, maybe, as her relationship with Charlie (Mehcad Brooks) is strictly of the over-the-phone variety, they having never met face-to-face for a multitude of reasons. When Danica is forced to put up her recently paroled, nymphomaniacal sister Tanya (Tiffany Haddish) – since their mother Lola (Whoopi Goldberg) refuses to do so – Tanya is quick to pry into Danica’s love life, and immediately suspects Charlie to be catfishing her. In other words, he likely isn’t real. While Danica refutes the notion outright, it seems more and more to be the case to the point where Charlie simply vanishes. Unwilling to let her sister mourn a fake person, Tanya goads Danica into a relationship with the ex-con, coffee shop owner downstairs Frank (Omari Hardwick). Danica is skeptical towards this, but things develop quickly and she finds herself back on her feet. But what if Charlie really is real? And what if he finds a way back into Danica’s life? Danica may just have to choose between the fantasy she’s always wanted, and the reality she never expected.
Truth be told, I beefed up the sh*t out the plot in that synopsis, because Nobody’s Fool never commits to a cohesive through-line. Instead, it’s largely a series of poorly scripted scenes that only has an inkling as to how the romantic-comedy subgenre operates. Not to mention the jokes inherent – you know, your meat and potatoes of the whole thing – are so unbelievably forced from the start that every single character comes across as an unrealistic stereotype devoid of a functioning brain. That’s hardly surprising, however, seeing as the film was written and directed by Tyler Perry himself, a man whose cinematic infamy keeps him from needing an introduction. Seriously, it baffles me how someone this bad at making movies can make so, so many. As it stands, Nobody’s Fool sits on my list as my third-least favorite film of 2018. Now, you would think that would be far enough down the totem pole to make it by proxy my least favorite Tyler Perry movie of the year too. Nope. Because guess what? He’s got Acrimony at number one. Christ, maybe – just maybe- when A Madea Family Funeral retires his seminal character for good in March I can be done with him for good. Then again, I’m white, so what the hell do I know?
Final Score: 1/10
Last year, one of the biggest bombs came in the form of Warner Bros.’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which looked to reinvigorate the classic tale for modern audiences and spark a burgeoning film franchise. Sufficient to say, that did not happen, as not only did it get panned by critics, but it couldn’t even recoup its budget of $175 million, making it a big loss for the studio. Unfortunately for Lionsgate, filming was already three months into production on their similar Robin Hood reboot by the time that one came out, far too late for them to have learned a lesson and pulled the plug. And it’s appropriate that they’ve released it on Thanksgiving, because it’s been proving to be quite the box office turkey. Granted, it was made for a slightly less hefty $100 million, but considering it’s barely been able to make two-thirds of that cash back, they cannot be happy. It’s hard to feel very badly at that, as the final product is hardly worthy of bringing back the eponymous character just eight years after Ridley Scott tried and failed to do so, his also simply titled Robin Hood. While this new-look one may have gotten the estimable talents of Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx to headline it, so muddled and uninspired are the action sequences that you might even think they borrowed set pieces from the King Arthur production. I understand the trend in Hollywood of giving nearly every recognizable character a gritty update, but something tells me we don’t need one much darker than 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Robin Hood picks up with one Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton) being drafted by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendlesohn) to fight with the Crusades in their war against the Muslims. There, he is slapped with insubordination when he attempts to prevent the murder of a young Muslim boy and is subsequently shipped off back to England. Upon returning to Nottingham, he finds the city to be in dire financial straits in the two years he had been gone, with the poor being rigorously taxed to support the war effort and keep the Sheriff in power. They also having been falsely informed of Robin’s death, he is disillusioned to learn that his lover Marian (Eve Hewson) has moved on in the form of Will “Scarlet” Tillman (Jamie Dornan), a representative for the people. It is then that Robin is approached by the father of the boy he attempted to save, he having stowed away on the same ship. He going by the English translation of his name, John (Jamie Foxx), John enlists Robin in his plan to overthrow the Sheriff for all that he has taken from them. As the two make moves to steal and redistribute the Sheriff’s finances, Robin becomes a vigilante folk hero, earning the moniker “The Hood,” and inspiring the people to rise up as well.
Not to keep King Arthur in the conversation more than it should, but the reasons behind both these films’ shortcomings are actually quite different. For one, it was the half-baked fantasy elements that doomed that project, not the street-level, crime-fueled action, whereas the street-level action is absolutely the problem here. And a big reason for that is the former of the two was helmed by Guy Ritchie, who basically redefined street-level action movies with the likes of 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. This one, on the other hand was done by Otto Bathurst, who you likely haven’t heard of unless you know the minds behind each episode of Black Mirror by heart. While it’s probably still too early to judge his career in film, this being his first go at it, it’s hard to get too excited by someone who thinks slow-motion is still the coolest thing since sliced bread. While the casual viewer might get something out of Robin Hood, film aficionados beware, as this one is so soulless and without personality that it feels like it was directed by a crummy old boot. What’s worse is that it doesn’t even seem to realize that it’s perfectly disposable, going so far as to telegraph what a potential sequel would entail even though now it will never happen. While it’s probably not as bad and shoehorned, think the end of Independence Day: Resurgence. Still, one wishes they would have simply focused on the film at hand. Or just not make the movie altogether. There’s also that.
Final Score: 2/10
Just when you thought we were done covering Netflix movies on here, think again. In fact, if you were to only read one of the three reviews for them, this is it. As much as I loved Buster Scruggs, it’s not going to be an awards contender, at least not in the way that Roma is. If you’re of the disposition that the Academy isn’t going to fully embrace a movie that almost everyone will stream in their living rooms and will only have just enough of a marginal release to qualify for consideration, I won’t necessarily argue with you. But it will get a butt ton of nominations, and deservedly so, as the pure artistry on display here is incredibly palpable. Yeah, that might be an artsy-fartsy take seeing as it’s in a language other than the one you’re reading here and it’s in black and white, but trust me, sometimes a movie is just better for having done both those things. I mean, would it have been the same movie if Schindler’s List had color? Sorry for using that tearjerker as an example, but it remains the most quintessential employer of the practice. Regardless, Roma is just as affecting emotionally, if not in so many words. It comes courtesy of Alfonso Cuarón, who again found himself writing, editing and doing the cinematography for the project in addition to simply directing it. I know some people who scoff at that mentality, as if doing multiple jobs on a film reflects a controlling or narcissistic personality, but that usually isn’t true. Nor is it here, simply because Cuarón is that talented a filmmaker to be able to execute his vision precisely the way he envisioned it.
Set in 1970 and 1971 in Mexico City, Roma centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a nanny/maid assigned to a moderately well-to-do family. She has her work cut out for her further when the patriarch Antonio (Fernando Gregiada) absconds on a business trip that is suspiciously extended, leaving his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Cleo to look after their four children. Meanwhile, Cleo begins seeing Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), with whom she becomes pregnant. Fermín, however, does not take the news well, and disappears from Cleo’s life. With the revelation that Antonio similarly left his family – in this instance for another woman – Cleo and Sofia will have to rely on one another to get by and find meaning as a single mother and one soon-to-be.
Aside from that, there’s not a whole lot more to go into detail over, simply because this is essentially a slice-of-life movie, one that isn’t necessarily propelled by plot but by character development. In fact, it harkens back to Cuarón’s breakout hit Y Tu Mama Tabién, as though the tones may be on different levels, it’s a simple production and one that does great work in writing layered characters. While I’d probably put Roma just barely a rung lower than that film, it is nice to see Cuarón get back to his roots after helming such ambitious projects as Children of Men and Gravity. Even from the opening credits he confidently masters the camerawork, often allowing it to rotate in place as the actors move around it. The fact that this is a Netflix movie may be a strike against Roma, but remember this: the Academy loves Cuarón. So don’t be surprised if Roma picks up hardware for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Picture. That’s right, while it might not be my absolute favorite of the year, this is my early pick for the top prize, as it’ll probably come down between this and A Star is Born when the big night arrives, it usually always coming down to one low-profile movie and one audience favorite. But like with Moonlight winning over La La Land, expect this one to nab it, the Academy not being able to resist looking smart and educated. To that point, also expect Yalitza Aparicio to get a Best Actress nomination.
Final Score: 10/10
It’s not easy following up a Best Picture winner. Just ask Ben Affleck, who went from something as thrilling as Argo to something as convoluted as Live by Night. Well, that’s what Steve McQueen has been tasked with doing, and with arguably loftier aspirations, seeing as Widows aims to be another awards contender. While probably nothing could ever live up to the searing period drama that was 12 Years a Slave, this one probably still should have hit a little harder. That’s not to say that there isn’t some magnificent work done here, and believe me, there is. Scene after scene McQueen shows that he knows what to do with the space provided and the actors present, who for the most part all give admirable performances. Chief among them is Viola Davis, the ostensible lead in the film, who once again showcases some of the best screen presence of anyone working today. It even has a slew of well-written characters coming from McQueen and Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, who proves she’s just about as good at writing movies as she is at writing novels. And yet Widows doesn’t really click the way it should. And I’m going to temper that statement by saying that I had some high expectations for this one, naturally, and even though it falls short of being one of the best films of the year, that doesn’t detract from all the solid work done around the board. Even if it won’t be as memorable as other crime thrillers like The Town – another Ben Affleck project – you’ll probably still get some good out of it.
In Widows, career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) is killed, along with the rest of his crew, in an explosion during a heist in which they absconded with $2 million from the likes of crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Trouble is, the money went up in flames too, and Manning wants it back. Only knowing Rawlings to have been involved, Manning is quick to approach his widow, one Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), and pass Harry’s posthumous debt onto her. Without the financial resources to pony up and fearing for her life, Veronica is quick to discover a series of heist plans Harry left to her in the event of his death. After contacting Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), the widows of Harry’s partners, Veronica develops a plan whereby the three of them follow Harry’s schemes and make off with $5 million, enough to pay off Manning and put them out of dire straits. As it becomes evident that Harry’s crew were set up by some unknown party, the widows must decide whether they’re doing this for vengeance, or just plain survival.
Upon doing research after having already seen it, I was surprised to learn that Widows was actually based on a 1980s TV series of the same name, having assumed it was simply another novel Flynn was adapting for the big screen. While it would take some more sleuthing to comment any more on the similarities or dissimilarities, I do commend 20th Century Fox and company for being able to find a none-too-recognizable property and give it a fresh update. It gets monotonous when every remake hurled our way is a revered classic that already stood on its own as it was. Instead we get introduced to something few people had ever heard of and incentivize them to take a trip back in time. That’s not to say I will – hell, I still need to sit down and finish House of Cards already just so I can be through with it – but all the more power to the people who might discover something new. But to get back to the film at hand, I must say that the 2018 Widows does feel a little less than the sum of its parts. And that makes me feel sort of bad to say, because it gives me every reason to love it. I guess if I had to verbalize it – and I still don’t know if I precisely can just yet – I’d probably say the inevitable twist never really sold me from a storytelling point of view. And if you’re worried about knowing that one exists, don’t, because even I knew and I didn’t see it coming. That said, it might have benefitted from a tighter rewrite that explained it off better, perhaps ditched a couple extraneous scenes and made the whole experience a bit brisker. Regardless, this is a well constructed picture and one deserving of praise, so I’m going to give it a tentatively positive score. Definitely one I’d want to revisit and get a second opinion on.
Final Score: 8/10