Once again, I am too back-logged with movies to watch to write proper reviews for every one. So here are a handful of capsule reviews of some of the latest films.
The Mule is a silly movie. There is no other way to describe it. Clint Eastwood plays a runner for the drug cartel, and it is as tonally questionable as that sounds. It is a pro-border depiction of Mexican immigrants as gang members while attempting to provide an open-minded depiction of the elderly ignorant. Eastwood uses pejorative terms like “dyke” and “beaner” in a way that is meant to come off as a joke. And, yes, the joke is on Eastwood’s character, but it is a pale attempt to paint a self-absorbed, insensitive character as learning.
It is such a black-and-white film about a man’s redemption by way of driving drugs across the country, so black-and-white that Eastwood’s rather charming performance almost isn’t enough to make it work. He is a great presence in this film, but once his character has not one but two threesomes the silliness overshadows the acting.
The art-house spectacle that would be glorious on the big screen is instead in your home on Netflix. And, frankly, if that means more people will watch it, then that’s all right. This black-and-white drama set in 1971 in Mexico City is written, directed, shot, and co-edited by Alfonso Cuaron. And, visually, it very much feels of a piece with his work. Controlled camera movements make the small feel big, reveal unsaid narrative information, and make the world of young Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) feel alive.
Sure, it is very artsy. The stillness of its protagonist. The occasionally obvious visual juxtapositions. The black-and-whiteness of it all. But Cleo’s story is heartbreaking, compassionate, intimate, and elegant. At the same time, Cuaron hints at larger events occurring around Cleo that contrast with the otherwise insular story.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is similarly quiet, sensitive, and sumptuous. Adapting James Baldwin’s book of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is a story, at its core, about the love between two young, black Harlem residents in the 1970s. The relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) is strained when Fonny is jailed for an alleged sexual assault. The story grapples with the implications of such a jailing, while also flashing back to the tender moments of Tish and Fonny’s relationship.
What stems from these juxtapositions is a film whose frustrations and celebrations are equally affecting. Jenkins condemns the New Jim Crow without letting the broad indictment of the system get in the way of the intimate character study. And, indeed, all of the characters in the film (save for perhaps Dave Franco’s real estate agent) are given intricacies. Even those we see only briefly, like Brian Tyree Henry’s Daniel and Teyonah Parris’ Ernestine, fill the screen with nuance and personality. And Regina King maximizes each second of her screentime with a maternal portrayal that is, in the traditional sense of the word, awesome.
Green Book is the type of film that would win Best Picture 15 years ago. It is a formulaic Civil Rights era period piece that wants to be charming as hell—it is, at times, but that mainly just makes it come across outdated and sanitized.
In a year with so many films made by people of color depicting the black experience, pretty much all of which do it better and with more nuance than Peter Farrelly’s film, Green Book is a dud with one really good performance (Mahershala Ali) and one strange, exaggerated one (Viggo Mortensen).
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy gives what is arguably her best acting performance to date in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the story of a struggling writer, Lee Israel, who turns to a career in forging letters. McCarthy and Richard E. Grant lead this film, co-written by Nicole Holofcener and directed by Marielle Heller, which gets by on its morose wit and unexpectedly riveting storytelling.
What I mean to say is, one would not expect a film about illegal letter forging to be exciting. Yet it is. The character work McCarthy and the screenwriters bring to Israel does not bog the plotting of the film down. We watch Israel’s scheme go awry, and it is compelling irrespective of McCarthy’s wonderful performance.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)