- Mary, Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke)
- Vice (Adam McKay)
- Beautiful Boy (Felix Van Groeningen)
- The Letter (William Wyler)
- Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer)
- Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
- Now Voyager (Irving Rapper)
- The Freshman (Andrew Bergman)
- Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
- Green Book (Peter Farrelly)
1- Why does every biopic about Mary, Queen of Scots include a climactic scene when she and Elizabeth I finally confront each other, setting the way for the denouement? It never happened in history. One would think after 100 years of films, someone would care about accuracy, right? Well, Schiller didn’t in his Mary Stuart play, so why should Josie Rourke, I guess. What bothers me most is that there is a kind of anti-feminist twist to this false history, because the confrontation usually is between a vibrant, beautiful and sexually active Mary and a powerful, grotesque and decrepit Elizabeth. Elizabeth wins this round in history, but not to the way the movies see it.
2- I am hearing a lot of curious backlash against Vice. Most of it is evidence of the worst sin of film criticism: knocking a movie for what it’s not. Vice is not a documentary. It is not historical drama. It is somewhere between the two, and it is unashamedly biased in its portray of Dick Cheney and his evil circle. It is also hilariously funny and inventive in its narrative style. It is its own kind of movie. Deal with it or move on.
3- I always think it is unfair to compare and contrast two films, but when they are as similar in form and content as Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back it is hard not to. Ben Is Back is the more nuanced of the two ‘good upper middle-class teenager becomes tortured drug addict’ movies. It does devolve into a police procedural in the last act, and ignores all the interesting character development it made up until that point. Beautiful Boy is just pretty self-righteous. Knowing that it is the memoir of the father and the son, it is hard to see the two of them as not being self-aggrandizing. The titles at the end tell us that the kid has been sober for 8 years, but how he got there is never explained. All we see it the kid continually falling off the wagon, the father using it for book fodder, the two of them reconciling and then the whole mess happening again. Frankly, don’t watch either of these and see Boy Erased instead. It is a powerful meditation on the limits of parenting.
4- Ah, Bette Davis. The more I see of her, even in her not so great films, the more I realize that she is the greatest actor in film history. Histrionic? Sometimes. Brilliant? All the time. And she could do tragedy and comedy and history. Sad that we never got to see her do Shakespeare. Could you imagine a Bette Davis Lady Macbeth or a Bette Davis Goneril or a Bette Davis Volumnia? The Letter is endlessly wonderful. William Wyler gets the most out of every actor in this film. Bette Davis is so overwrought at the end, but the performance has been so carefully modulated that the final explosion is cathartic. Plus you have the terrifyingly disdainful glare of Gale Sondergaard. Unforgettable.
5- I love the films of Eric Rohmer. They are little, perfectly polish moral problems played out among beautiful, talkative people in beautiful French locales. Pauline in the Beach is almost Talmudic in how it sets up its conflicting takes on what is just, what constitutes a good kind of love, and how people justify bad behavior to themselves. I want to see all his movies.
6- As a victim of a somewhat abusive childhood, it thrills and amazes me each time I watch Now, Voyager. The portrayal of family cruelty and its damages is unrelenting in the first part of the film. That is what makes Charlotte Vale’s self-healing and triumph so satisfying….you’ve been with her in the depths and are there to watch her surpass ever other character in the film. Her life will be wonderful. As I have written before, I believe it is quite a feminist message. Charlotte is helped along the way by sympathetic men but she moves beyond them and the final line is, to me, a manifesto that she has grown beyond the need of a relationship to be whole. Who else but Bette Davis could play this role. She so embodies the earlier tortured Charlotte, that her transformation is awe-inspiring.
7- I have successfully avoided all superhero films up until this point. The rapturous response to Black Panther coupled with its cultural imperative made me curious to see it. I was right to be avoiding it. It took me three sittings to get through it. It is hailed as empowering. But does giving the same kind of dumb entertainment and exploding cars and incomprehensible plots really mark an advance of some kind? Watching this I felt the same way I felt watching Brokeback Mountain. I felt I was being told, “Here is a film that can make you feel proud about yourself.” Uh, no. Here is a poorly written cliche-ridden film pandering to Gays disguised as a breakthrough. Same here. I will admit that super-hero films are not my genre, but man, can’t a movie be coherent at least?
Let me just say, finally, that I really wanted to love this film and I really wanted to celebrate its notion of empowerment. I felt the opposite
8- There are comedies that become immortal because they created a self-contained universe that is not dependent on the real world. I am thinking of Palm Beach Story (as I often do), as well as Shop Around the Corner and Broadcast News. I would add The Freshman to this list. Yes, a lot of the surface humor is derived from Brando’s self-parody of Don Corleone. But the world it creates rivals Alice in Wonderland. The performances are perfect. Maximillian Schell, for goodness sake! And let us not forget the Komodo Dragon being serenaded by Bert Parks.
9- Although I did get sucked into its feel-good ambience and happy ending, I think Green Book is an embarrassment. It is the kind of self-congratulatory race relations story that would have seemed daring in 1970 but now seems painful. Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of a Bronx Italian borders on insulting and Mahershala Ali looks like he can’t wait for the whole ordeal to be over. You’ll feel like that too