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Oscar Contenders Hit Columbus Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Oscar Contenders Hit Columbus TheatersPhoto still from "Roma," via IMDb.
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It’s Oscar flurry weekend. By next week, awards hopefuls will duke it out for box office dollars with superheroes and big budget whatnot. But this weekend, it’s mostly the hopefuls (and likely winners!) spilling across Columbus screens.

Roma

by George Wolf & Hope Madden

Thank you, Netflix, for financing and distributing Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, Roma. No offense to the small screens that Netflix often lives in, but this one demands to be seen on the big ones.

A breathtaking culmination of his work to date, Roma pulls in elements and themes, visuals and curiosities from every film Cuarón has made (including a wonderfully organic ode to the inspiration for one of his biggest), braiding them into a semi-autobiographical meditation on family life in the early 1970s.

At the film’s heart is an extended group concerning an affluent Mexico City couple (Fernando Grediaga and the scene-stealing Marina de Tavira), their four children and their two live-in servants Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

The family unit will morph, stretch and strengthen by film’s end as Cuarón envelopes us in a languidly paced but visually sumptuous exploration of Cleo’s point of view.

A remarkable Aparicio quietly observes all that goes on around her — the tumult and the quiet of life inside and outside the house — as Cuarón’s camera performs a cross between poetry and ballet to capture those observations.

Filmed in gorgeous black and white, the picture is showy without being showy, it’s realistic with flourishes of absurdism. More than anything, it is proof of Cuarón’s mastery as a cinematic storyteller. The same fluidity he brought to his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban serves a different kind of magic here, capturing the intimate and the epic, the simple and the wildly complicated with pristine clarity.

Sequence upon sequence offers a dizzying array of beauty, as foreground and background often move in glorious concert during meticulously staged extended takes that somehow feel at once experimental and restrained. The effect is of a nearly underwater variety, a profound serenity that renders any puncture, from a street parade moving blindly past the distraught woman in its path to a murder in broad daylight, that much more compelling.

Roma is filmmaking of the most consummate skill. Though it’s anchored in family strife that might feel at home in a Lifetime melodrama, the film achieves an intimacy that’s grand, detailed and perhaps more than anything else, inviting. Accept that invitation, and Cuarón will serve you a feast not easy to leave behind, even if you want to.

You won’t want to.

Grade: A+

The Favourite

by Matt Weiner

Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is someone you might charitably describe as “uncompromising.” His last two English-language films include a dystopian romantic comedy and a revenge thriller rooted in Greek mythology. So it is both a delight and a relief to see in The Favourite that Lanthimos at his most accessible is also his best yet.

The story for The Favourite was originally written by Deborah Davis, later joined by Tony McNamara but with no screenplay credit for Lanthimos — a rarity. The film covers the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, during which the War of the Spanish Succession and political jockeying in Parliament are tearing the indecisive, physically frail queen in multiple directions.

But the men of the court are little more than foppish pawns. The real palace intrigue takes place between court favorite Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her new maid, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), daughter to a once-prosperous family that has fallen on hard times. Sarah and Abigail vie for Queen Anne’s affection and behind-the-scenes power, although those two things are entangled together to varying degrees for Sarah and Abigail.

The Favourite might be dressed up as a period piece, but it’s not a demandingly historical one. Lanthimos admits to taking significant poetic license with the relationship and events between the three women. The effect isn’t just practical (although this should come as some relief if, like me, you were dreading a Wikipedia deep-dive on Whiggism).

It’s also an avenue by which Lanthimos can smuggle in his trademark eye for the very contemporary and very weird, cruel ways we treat each other. And in this area, Lanthimos has cast the perfect leading women to keep up with — and even rise above — his vision.

Stone and Weisz play off each other to perfection, with pitch black verbal volleys that threaten to turn as deadly as the war taking place beyond the mannered confines of the palace. But it’s Olivia Colman who dominates every scene, which is all the more impressive for her mercurial take on the physically deteriorating Queen Anne. Colman brings a measure of sympathy to Queen Anne that transcends what could have been played for easy mockery, and she deserves every award coming her way this year.

Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey, Slow West) keep the camera movement as brisk as the dialogue. The film’s frequent and disorienting use of fisheye is a recurring signature, but even the more conventional wide shots manage to combine a palatial sense of openness with Lanthimos’s signature creeping, queasy dread.

It felt strange to laugh out loud so much during a Lanthimos movie, especially with the undercurrents of violence and misanthropy that stalk The Favourite. Maybe it was the irrepressible performances from the leading women. Or maybe lines like “No one bets on whist!” are just inherently funny.

Whatever the reason, this deadly serious comedy of manners is among the director’s — and the year’s — best.

Grade: A

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

by George Wolf

Should we really be surprised that a spider-based franchise has so many legs?

It wasn’t that many years ago when Spider-Man 2 was the conventional wisdom pick for all-time best superhero flick. Then last year, Homecoming erased the memories of some disappointing installments with a tonally perfect reboot.

And now, Spidey gets back to his animation roots with Into the Spider-Verse, a holiday feast of thrills, heart, humor and style that immediately swings to the very top of the year’s animated heap.

Teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore from Dope and The Get Down) is juggling a lot of teen drama. He’s trying to make friends at a new school, make nice with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and practice graffiti art with his cool Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), so he really doesn’t need to be dragged into an alternate universe with Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) right now, okay?

But, thanks to an evil plan from Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) and Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn), that’s just what happens. And before you can say quantum theory, Miles is meeting kindred heroes from all over the Spider-Verse, including another Spider-Man (Chris Pine), Spider-Man Noir (classic Nicolas Cage), anime version Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham, a hilarious Looney Tunes-style crime fighting pig (John Mulaney).

Writer Phil Lord follows his winning scripts for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie with an even bigger bulls-eye, one that manages to honor franchise traditions as it’s letting in some fresh, hip, and often very funny air.

In the hands of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, the story bursts to vibrant life. The dazzling animation gives a big soul kiss to comic books and pushes nearly every frame to its action-following limit.

This Spider-Man is filled with everything you want in a superhero flick today. There are compelling characters and engaging conflicts within a diverse climate, and a vital, clearly defined message of empowerment that stays above the type of pandering sure to trigger a kid’s b.s. detector.

And man, is it fun. That still works, too.

Grade: A

Vox Lux

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

No doubt you’re hip to the talent of Natalie Portman.

But if you only know Brady Corbet the actor (Funny Games, Melancholia, Simon Killer), or maybe don’t know him at all, get to know Corbet the visionary filmmaker.

Corbet writes and directs an astute and unusual pop ballad about celebrity — American celebrity, at that.

Vox Lux opens in 1999 as young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and her high school class are visited by a disgruntled young white male. Corbet’s camera plays with the horror of the scene as it dawns on those in the classroom as well as the audience what is about to happen.

As Celeste heals from a bullet to the spine, she and her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) work through their collective grief and trauma by writing a song, which Celeste later performs at a memorial vigil.

Thanks to the astute strategy of a no-nonsense manager (Jude Law) and straightforward publicist (Jennifer Ehle), the song becomes a healing anthem and Celeste — her protective sister at her side — is launched into pop stardom.

Corbet’s chaptered “21st Century Portrait” (the proper subtitle to his film) offers infrequent omniscient narration from Willem Dafoe, a glib narrative device that’s part “Behind the Music” and part sociological commentary. Tragedy is commodity in modern America, a fact that can only mean more tragedy.

When the timeline shifts forward and Portman takes over in the lead, we see a new character fully formed from years of living that are only hinted at. Celeste is now a veteran megastar with a daughter of her own (also played by Cassidy) and strained relationships with everyone around her.

Portman’s performance is such an all-in tour de force it effectively divides the film into parts: with and without her. She commands the screen with such totality you’re afraid of what Celeste might do if you dare to shift your focus somewhere else.

Corbet knows better than to do that. With Portman as a mesmerizing guide, he crafts a fascinating fable with two uniquely American pillars: gun violence and celebrity culture. Vox Lux is shocking, funny, sad, and haunting, with plenty of visual flourish and even some new songs by Sia.

It’s a statement, and coming from a relatively unknown writer/director, a pretty audacious one.

Keep ’em coming, Corbet.

Grade: B+

The House that Jack Built

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

What does a serial killer have in common with an indie filmmaker? Quite a lot, or so suggests indie filmmaker Lars von Trier.

We’ll say this with all sincerity: The House that Jack Built — a 2-plus hour peek into the mind and methods of a murderer — is von Trier’s most lighthearted picture to date.

It’s also as tedious and self-indulgent as Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.

LvT’s artistry lies in his ability to make the viewer uncomfortable. His films are punishing, which is why his first foray into horror, the brilliant and wildly unnerving 2009 film Antichrist, was such a perfect fit. He returns to the genre with Jack, here allowing a sadistic murderer the opportunity to shed light on the filmmaker’s own discomforting artistry.

It can work — Julian Richards’s The Last Horror Movie and Remy Balvaux’s Man Bites Dog both offer blistering achievements on the theme. But Jack falters, and von Trier falters, in two important ways.

The film does deliver sadistic glory, yet in terms of violence or depravity, it feels oddly safe. Not safe for all viewers, mind you, but horror fans and von Trier fans have seen far more envelope-pushing than what Jack depicts. There is one sequence — the picnic sequence — that is among the most perfect horror movie episodes ever filmed. Beyond that, much of this movie is competently made but ultimately tired.

We follow Jack (Matt Dillon, making the most of a surprising casting choice) through various instances of homicidal mania. As voiceover conversations with the mysterious Verge (Bruno Ganz) pay homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Jack’s bloody exploits become less darkly comedic and more brazenly sadistic, testing his claim that “the soul belongs to heaven and the body to hell.”

Just as the Nymphomaniac films traded provocative ideas for fist-shaking admonishments from filmmaker to critics, Jack devolves into an instrument wielded even less bluntly. Again, von Trier channels his tale through two voices: the protagonist and a straw man. Verge serves up the proselytizations on art and morality so Jack can knock ’em down, with snippets of von Trier’s previous films peppered in for anyone who still isn’t getting it.

Not that LvT’s ideas on this topic aren’t interesting — far from it. But the line between personal and self-indulgent is the same one that separates uncomfortable questions that resonate (as in von Trier’s own Dogville) from spoon-fed answers that do not. One side makes for an engaging film experience while the other falls short, no matter how impressive the visual set pieces (which Jack does indeed provide).

Von Trier has unapologetically wallowed in depravity his entire career, and those themes have served the narrative in amazing ways. Now he seems more interested in narratives that serve grandiose debates of his own artistic value.

Let’s hope that road has reached an end. While von Trier remains an artist worthy of attention, The House That Jack Built stands as another missed opportunity.

Grade: C+

Also opening in Columbus:
Anna and the Apocalypse (R)
Mortal Engines (PG13)
The Mule (R)
Once Upon a Deadpool (PG13)

Read more from George and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to a weekly roundup of film reviews on the podcast, SCREENING ROOM.

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