Monitor film critic Peter Rainer was impressed by several movies that were released this month, including "Roma," Alfonso Cuaron's most personal film, and actor Willem Dafoe portraying Van Gogh.
‘At Eternity’s Gate’ features career-best Willem Dafoe
“I am my paintings,” says Vincent van Gogh, played by Willem Dafoe in a career-best performance, in Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” which follows the artist through his last tumultuous and astonishingly prolific years in the late 1880s in the south of France. Watching this explosively lyrical film, you can believe it.
Schnabel is, of course, a celebrated artist as well as a powerful, if powerfully uneven, filmmaker, and what he captures here is what it must have been like to be Van Gogh. It’s an artist’s imagining of what another artist might have felt. He never does break away from the romantic, madness-of-genius cliché that has dogged so many movies and commentaries about Van Gogh. Instead, he embraces it because he believes it authenticates the turmoil that goes into creating great art. Of course, turmoil can also create bad art, but such is Schnabel’s ardor that I bought into the banality even though I think Van Gogh was a great artist despite rather than because of his mental anguish.
I have a bit less sympathy for the ways in which the filmmakers shoehorn conjecture and flat-out mythmaking into the narrative. But the film comes to a great and sorrowing finish when we hear Vincent’s words, “I thought an artist has to teach a way to look at the rest of the world. Not anymore. Now I just think of my relationship with eternity.” One of the great achievements of this movie is that, in the end, Van Gogh’s words enter into our soul with the same force as the paintings. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for some thematic content.)
'Roma' is Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film
Alfonso Cuarón is probably the most prodigiously versatile film artist working today. His new film, after a break of five years, is “Roma,” which he also wrote and served as cinematographer for, and it’s his most personal, a semi-autobiographical reminiscence, filmed in lustrous black and white, of an upper-middle-class family in the Mexico City neighborhood of Colonia Roma where he grew up in the early 1970s.
Its central figure is Cleo, played by a young woman, Yalitza Aparicio, with no previous acting experience. A domestic worker, Cleo lives in a guest house in the back of the family estate and is nanny to the four rambunctious children of Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a physician in a local hospital who, not long after the film begins, walks out on the family, leaving behind a kind of makeshift matriarchy that also includes the children’s grandmother. The focus is almost always on Cleo, which is probably just as well, since Sofía’s grievances are not richly rendered.
The fact that Cuarón films so much of this film somewhat distanced from the action, with such sparing use of close-ups that it took me a long time to get a fix on what anybody looked like, is no doubt intentional: It’s his way of memorializing his story, his reminiscence, by fixing it in the mind free of melodramatic ploys. But as evocative and soulful as I found parts of this movie, I experienced these stylistics as more evasion than immersion. Cuarón is so careful to avoid overdramatizing the narrative that his steady-state underplaying ends up seeming equally coercive. But this is not how we are supposed to react to “Roma.” We are supposed to regard it as “real life.” Grade: A- (Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language. It’s in Spanish and Mixtec with English subtitles.)
Orson Welles would likely approve of making-of doc 'They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead'
From the indefatigable filmmaker Morgan Neville, who earlier this year came out with the marvelous Fred Rogers documentary "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?," comes "They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead," which chronicles the making of Orson Welles’s “final” film, "The Other Side of the Wind." "Wind" was shot between 1970 and 1976 and was only partially edited. It was beset by legal woes and held in French vaults and labs for almost 40 years. Both Neville’s film and “The Other Side of the Wind” are being released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix. I would advise seeing Welles’s film first. It’s more rewarding and less confusing that way.
Neville’s film, which draws on interviews with surviving crew and actors as well as behind-the-scenes footage, explores the making of “The Other Side of the Wind” (less so the mechanics of its restoration) but focuses equally on Welles’s mythology, some of it self-made, all of it enthralling.
His film isn’t just a companion piece to “The Other Side of the Wind.” As it turns out, bearing Welles’s words in mind, it becomes almost a meta version of Welles’s movie. I would like to think that the great magician himself would have approved. Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)
For ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ Coens travel to Old West
This new movie, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which is in theaters and on Netflix, strikes me as mid-to-upper range Coen fare. It’s an anthology film consisting of six discrete vignettes set in the Old West.
The eponymous first episode, starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy and deadly marksman, is also the film’s best. From here on, the episodes are hit-and-miss. Even the good sections have their weak spots.
In this new film, the Coen brothers' extraordinary jeweler’s-eye attention to detail, their gift for concocting dialogue in plummy 19th-century vernacular, their lyrical embrace of wide-open landscapes, and their woeful nihilism that conceives of a world where paradise is always on the precipice of ruination are hallmarks of something much more than mere jokesterism. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some strong violence.)
In 'Green Book,' lessons are learned in Jim Crow South
There are certain movies that shamelessly manipulate you and yet, even while knowing this, you fall for them anyway. Such a movie is “Green Book,” an audience pleaser of the first magnitude that floated merrily above my many objections. Based on true events, the film is set in 1962, when we are first introduced to Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen), a cocky Italian-American bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City whose nickname comes from his genius for talking his way out of anything. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained African-American jazz pianist, hires him to be his driver and bodyguard on an extended winter music tour with his trio through the Deep South.
We are told that Doc, who doesn’t need the money, not to mention the grief, is undertaking this tour because he wants to make a political point. This social-activist motivation doesn’t really come through in Ali’s performance, though. And Tony, who is shown in the beginning trashing two drinking glasses in his kitchen because some black workers drank from them, too quickly shucks his prejudices.
All these objections, and more, are valid, but as I warned at the outset, they don’t really matter. This film cuts right through your defenses. That’s because the performances by the two actors, especially Mortensen, are so hugely entertaining. Peter Farrelly, who directed and co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, also co-directed “Dumb & Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” He knows how to work a comedy sketch (if not moments of high drama, like the one in which Tony rescues Doc from belligerent white patrons in a bar fight). Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material.)
Unreleased Orson Welles film ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ arrives
In the summer of 1970, Orson Welles embarked on a movie, “The Other Side of the Wind,” that he fervently hoped would bring him back into the Hollywood fold after more than a decade of self-imposed exile in Europe following a string of commercial flops. As was too often the case in Welles’s career, things went horribly wrong. Welles died in 1985 without his cherished project ever seeing the light of a film projector.
And so, after all this hoo-ha, what do I make of the film, which centers on a legendary, self-exiled director, played by John Huston, as he scrambles to complete the movie he hopes will revive his Hollywood glory? Welles has always been a cinema icon for me, and I approached this “new” movie as one might approach a new symphony by Beethoven. Having seen it, my overwhelming feeling is not exaltation but sadness. I look at this maddening pastiche and think of all the great movies he might have made.
For Welles aficionados, and perhaps only for them, “The Other Side of the Wind” will function as a skeleton key to the themes and obsessions of his entire career. “The Other Side of the Wind” comes to us as a kind of time capsule of an era when Hollywood, for a brief time, opened its doors wide to creative risk. It never did welcome Welles, though, and this last, bewilderingly hectic movie from him can best be viewed, I think, not so much as a high achievement in its own right as an indictment of Hollywood’s criminal neglect. Grade: B+ (This movie is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, and some language.)
‘Shoplifters’ asks, what is the true meaning of family?
In “Shoplifters,” written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda and the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Japan’s entry for the best foreign language film Oscar, 12-year-old Shota (Jyo Kairi) and Osamu (Lily Franky), presumably his father, encounter a crying 5-year-old child, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). She is alone and apparently neglected by her parents. Torn about what to do, they take her back with them, if only to provide a temporary refuge. It is then that we encounter the extended Shibata family, which appears to be a tightknit, impoverished, multi-generational assemblage hidden away from the street, in tight quarters, in a run-down section of Tokyo. As the film incrementally unwinds, we discover they are not altogether who they seem to be.
Despite all that is good about “Shoplifters,” I found the central conceit bothersome. I also don’t think Kore-eda’s implicit thesis about what truly constitutes a family is such an earth-shatterer. It’s not exactly news that we don’t get to choose who our parents or siblings are, or that we can feel deep familial attachments to those to whom we are unrelated.
But in the end, Kore-eda, for all the cooked-up moments in “Shoplifters,” knows where the heart of his story is. Its final, wrenching fadeout, with little Yuri navigating her bereft new life, is beyond praise. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some sexual content and nudity. In Japanese with English subtitles.)