In ‘At Eternity’s Gate,’ van Gogh remains mad, bad, dangerous to know

Wilem Dafoe already played an artist. In To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin’s shimmering tone poem about posing in Los Angeles’ fickle light, Dafoe played Masters, a painter and counterfeiter so sure of himself — so psychotic — that he can postpone the creation of masterpieces to kill cop William Petersen. Already in 1985 the actor boasted the ovular jaw and worn leather wallet of a voice that would make casting him a challenge for the next thirty years. Watch the jaw, though, whose positions he manipulated as surely as John Gielgud did pitch and timbre.

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‘Vox Lux’ and its muddled look at how pop music works

A film, to use a flattering verb, organized around climaxes, Vox Lux begins with its most memorable and exploitative. In 1999, high schooler Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) suffers spinal injury after a Columbine-indebted shooting. Writer-director Brady Corbet stages the violence with restraint and precision: the shooter has his back to the camera until the shots fire, and its balletic movement has the chill of Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Why Corbet expended so much skill isn’t clear; it’s as if the delight of staging overcame squeamishness or narrative sense. This approach to filmmaking informs Vox Lux, Corbet’s second film after 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader: an exercise in decadence that were it not for Corbet’s buttoned-up tendencies would have been a recognizably mad entry in the Ken Russell school of directing. Vox Lux is a kooky film that is, alas, not made by a kook. Continue reading

The best films of 2018, part one

I saw more movies than ever yet I saw more consensus than ever as critics released their year-end lists. Two of the world’s best directors released more than one film in 2018; one of those directors has catapulted himself to the top of the essential list.

Click on director credits below for full reviews.

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Period piece ‘1985’ shows how the art of losing is hard to master. 

Watching 1985, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second term disassembling the federal government, I remembered that my uncle Lelio, who changed his name to Andrew but whom we knew as Tata, joined the Army as a grunt and was sent to Korea, a move kicking off a cycle of peripatetic travel during which he contracted the HIV virus whose complications killed him a decade later. Continue reading

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ offers confused, necessary myth making

Written during a period of personal tumult, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk dared to present a young American black couple in love — unusual in 1974 when colleagues Saul Bellow and John Updike avoided love stories, radical for a novelist watching the collapse of the bipartisan consensus over civil rights legislation and nothing with which to replace it. The black family in the Nixon era was on its own. Continue reading

‘Green Book’ can’t even get racism right

We’ve failed as a nation if we think Hollywood producers should approve dreck like Green Book. Patronizing, obvious, and animated by a contempt for the intelligence of its audience, Green Book will do well at the Academy Awards, and, indeed, was made for peer approval. Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) looks determined to purge any trace of the raucous comedy of which he’s capable. At least Crash was ambitious. Green Book is that most gruesome of Hollywood hybrids: the comedy with a heart.

That Green Book, named after the twentieth century travel guide for black Americans wanting safe and comfortable passage, insists on the most conventional notions about race relations is one of its grosser ironies. After the nightclub at which he works closes for renovations, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) lands a job as a driver for pianist/composer Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). An offer to also assume the duties of tour manager Frank swiftly rejects. An amiable dunce quick with his fists, Frank is the sort of casual racist who throws away the water glasses used by the black handymen who visit his home and barely flinches when relatives suggest there’s something fishy about his wife interacting with those same men. So the pair hit the road, with the polished and scrupulously erudite Doc finessing Frank and the lowbrow Frank reminding Doc of the glories of fried chicken. Along the way, to quote Crimes and Misdemeanors‘ cynical TV producer played by Alan Alda, they learn deep values.

With the extra weight, the pursing of the lips with which actors like Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor have suggested palookahood, and the infinite variations of his shrug, Mortensen gives another of his renditions of comfortable masculinity. He’s lucky, for Frank on the page is little more than greasy pasta fazool. Called upon to deliver Farrelly’s horrible dialogue with rounded vowels and a worn imitation of what an actor thinks an educated person sounds like, Ali is less comfortable, and who wouldn’t be with the procession of conventions that Farrelly presents as if they were kittens. Racist Southern sheriff? Check. Uptight musicians who learn to accept the lummox? Check. Doc’s wowing the locals with his technique? Check. He even learns to love Little Richard.

Whether critics judge, say, a book or film create in the sixties using the mores of 2018 is a legitimate debate; what isn’t is Green Book‘s pretending that the mores of the early pre-LBJ sixties need no examination. As Frank’s wife Linda Cardellini sits around the kitchen, charmed by Frank’s ghost written letters. Worse, Farrelly refuses to touch Doc’s homosexuality as anything but a plot point (Frank is dispatched to get him out of jail for soliciting in a public toilet). Black, gay, and a musician? In the 1960s? This is a heavy load for a film to carry, let alone an actor of even Ali’s resourcefulness, but it doesn’t matter. All it takes is a scenic road trip through the South for our differences to erode. If they erode fast enough, we might get lucky and be invited to Christmas dinner.