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ALL CACOPHONOUS ON THE EASTERN FRONT - My Review of COME AND SEE (5 Stars)
We all have gaps in our moviegoing experiences. I've never seen It Happened One Night and only very recently did I watch It's A Wonderful Life. In February, Janus Films released a 2K restoration of Come And See, a Soviet-era film from 1985 which depicts the horrors of World War II from a child's perspective, but the onset of the global pandemic overshadowed it somewhat. In my self-isolation, I sought it out what has been called "one of the greatest war films ever made" and, after viewing it, felt compelled to write about this unforgettable masterpiece.
Set in 1943 Nazi occupied Belorussia, the film follows a young man named Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko, a non-actor at the time) who, upon finding a rifle amidst the rubble of a war torn village, joins up with a mostly civilian branch of the Soviet Army to fight the brutal invaders. We experience, almost in real time, every agonizing moment our protagonist suffers through. Its Director, Elem Klimov, who never made another film after this one, and Writer, Ales Adamovich both as children lived through many of the harrowing experiences depicted here.
When Flyora first joins up, he leaves behind his young mother and two adorable twin sisters. The army assigns him menial tasks and leave him behind at camp when sent off to face the Nazis on the front. Soon Flyora meets Glasha (Olga Mironova), a young girl who's attached to one of the leaders and has also been left behind. Their sweetly idyllic moments together end swiftly when the Nazis start bombing. Often throughout the film, Flyora will look up to the sky and see a portentous luftwaffe in the sky, seemingly tracking his every move.
Flyora and Glasha quickly flee back to his village to check in on his family, and here is where everything changes in the blink of an eye. With nobody home, flies buzzing around half-eaten plates of food, and a kettle still warm on the stove, Flyora guesses they have fled to a secret hiding place. As they hurry there, Glasha looks back and sees something horrifying yet doesn't reveal it to our young hero. This unforgettable moment sets the stage for the rest of this disorienting, nightmarish film.
As Flyora wades through mud, dodges bullets whizzing over his head, and sees the worst in humanity, he seems to age decades before our eyes, despite the film taking place over a matter of days. This wholly immersive experience puts the viewer right in the middle of the chaos, yet Klimov's filmmaking technique is so precise, so artful, that you never feel like you're in the hands of a "point and shoot" filmmaker. Often, he has his characters stare directly into the camera, revealing their agonized souls. The fluid use of steadicam by his Cinematographer Aleksey Rodionov feels as accomplished as anything seen in Paths of Glory and it's clear that 1917 wouldn't have existed without this film. Roger Deakins, who won the Oscar for shooting last year's incredible World War I story, has even called Come And See one of his favorite films.
What truly sets this film apart, however, is its sound mix by Viktor Mors. He fills the soundtrack with a nonstop buzz of animal and insect noises, tortured screams of villagers, military marches, and more to create a wall of sound guaranteed to please generations of David Lynch fans. On top of this, we're treated to operatic Soviet anthems. It took Klimov many years to get this film past the censors, who deemed it aesthetically dirty. It wasn't until the onset of glasnost that he was basically given free rein to shoot the movie however he wanted. Of course, a film about the Nazis from a Russian point of view still props up the regime, but the grimy, gutted look and feel of the film remained true to Klimov's original vision.
Much like 1917, the film plays almost like a video game, with young Flyora bouncing from one challenge to the next. Luckily the similarities end there, due to Kravchenko's fantastic performance and Klimov's dedication to bringing the truth to the screen. While not particularly graphic, you feel every bit of Flyora's inch by inch struggle to survive. You won't soon forget the third act set piece in which the Nazi's set about destroying an entire village and its inhabitants. Same goes for the last few minutes, which plays with time to show us the root of all evil. It's a feat of editing and sound to rival some of the best sequences in film and leaves you breathless. It's following by a memorable final shot, and this film is filled with them, as we watch a massive group of soldiers marching towards an unknown destiny. Come And See, like its title, urges you to not look away at man's inhumanity towards man. It's by no means a pleasant time at the movies, but it's essential viewing nonetheless.
I MEH WITH YOU - My Review of VALLEY GIRL (2 1/2 Stars)
A couple of years ago, I went with a group to see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Despite the thuddingly bad writing, we'd giddily wonder what ABBA song the filmmakers would shoehorn into the next musical number. I remember my pal Dennis seeing those platform soles stepping out of a helicopter and loudly exclaiming, "F*ck yeah, it's Cher!" as the camera tilted up to reveal the pop icon. We sat there exhausted and bewildered as the end credits rolled when our friend Steven yelled across the row to us, "That was terrible…and great!"
I brought that memory to my viewing of the musical remake of the Martha Coolidge 1983 classic Valley Girl, which made a star out of Nicholas Cage and launched a killer, wall-to-wall soundtrack. It starts with a fun conceit. Teen movie legend Alicia Silverstone, as the older version of Julie from the original, sits her wayward teen daughter down for a talk about how things were when she was her age. Unreliable narrator that she is, she imagines her younger years as a bubblegum musical. This gives the film free reign to do whatever it pleases, resulting in something that resembles the orgy-driven lovechild of Glee, High School Musical, and Rock Of Ages as they tag-teamed Gillian Armstrong's 80s new wave film Starstruck.
When we flashback to the 80s, we meet young Julie as played by Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day), who is 32 in real life but adheres to the Stockard Channing in Grease requirement of playing a teen. Still, she's cute as hell and sings like an angel. Julie and her posse of fellow upper middle class valley girls spend their days ogling boys, shopping at the mall, or tanning at the beach. It's a that beach where Julie meets Randy (Josh Whitehouse, all loose and fun instead of Cage's too cool for school approach), a scrappy punk from the dangerous Hollywood side of Los Angeles. Faster than you can say "Gag me with Romeo and Juliet!", the pair fall in love, starting what results in a cultural war between the haves and the have-nots, but with bright, catchy 80s cover songs!
Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg knows what she's doing, staging the numbers with flair and fluidity. Yes, it's a jukebox musical, but the songs often move the story along instead of feeling wedged into the screenplay. Early on we're treated to"We Got The Beat" as the girls skip through the Galleria and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" for their day at the shore, both of which set the stage with high energy choreography. I loved Mae Whitman's perfect introductory song, "Bad Reputation" as she plays Jack, Randy's lesbian BFF. Obnoxious YouTuber, Logan Paul, who plays Julie's awful jock boyfriend, gets his big first number, "Hey Mickey" at a pep rally, which seems to exist so that we'll learn his name. Ok, that one's a little too convenient, but it made me grin. Occasionally, Goldenberg and her writer, Amy Talkington use slow motion, such as with "Kids In America", to isolate Julie in a scene and allow us inside her head. Despite being used to better effect in the "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" scene in Across The Universe, it gives the film more emotional heft than one would expect.
A film like this, however, would disappoint lovers of camp without that one bonkers sequence. Fear not, because you're in for an aerobics scene which crazily mashes up Depeche Mode, Madonna, Hall & Oates, Soft Cell as the girls put on their best Jane Fonda tights and leg warmers and send this film into the cuckoo stratosphere. Had there been more scenes like this, I'd be five-starring this puppy all day and night. Most of it, however, sticks with the formula, giving Gen Xers a nostalgia trip and their children a new mix tape to savor. After a while, despite a never flagging pace, I got tired of it, knowing full well it was sticking to the script of a "will they or won't they get together?" by the time we get to the big prom finale, which of course features the iconic "I Melt With You" from the original.
It's cute as hell, but hell is still hell! Most of the characters get one single trait and some of the cover songs pale in comparison to the originals. It's all very surface level, much like Silverstone's own hazy memories of her teen years. One big exception is the "Under Pressure" scene. Gloriously sweeping all over the city to feature our entire cast, the Queen/David Bowie classic gets repurposed in part as a women's empowerment anthem as some of the girls feel that pressure to have sex on prom night. It's here where the female driven creatives on this film really shine. More of that please!
Oh, how I wish the gang could have gotten together to watch this movie in a theatre. Its thrills, and yes it has some, just aren't the same when watching in self-isolation. Without a pack of like-minded pals to laugh and groan in equal measure, the experience resulted in something neither terrible nor great. Simply just ok.
NATURAL ELECTION - My Review of BAD EDUCATION (4 Stars)
A classic satire comes along every so often to remind me, more than other film genres, that great art can come with a sucker punch to the frontal lobes. Movies such as Network, Nightcrawler, Heathers, and The Lobster remind us that when humans go bad, it's tragic yet devastatingly entertaining. In 1999, Alexander Payne brought us Election, which on the surface brought us a High School Student Council race, but really showed us how the war between ruthless ambition and morality could destroy the very fabric of society. I consider it a masterpiece and have hungered for more films like it ever since. I've waited and waited. Yes, Jojo Rabbit wowed me, but a great satire grounded in the mundane reality of a high school setting has proven elusive. The genre often spells box office poison in this cut and dry storytelling era in which we often find ourselves. Finally, Cory Finley, who brought us the impressive, tonally distinct Thoroughbreds in 2017, has followed it up with Bad Education. It oozes Election's DNA and announce itself as one of the best films of 2020 along with a career-best performance by Hugh Jackman.
He stars as Frank Tassone, a real life Long Island High School Superintendent, who in 2002 when we first meet him, has brought Rosyln High School into the number 4 position in the country. Everybody loves Frank. He remembers everyone's names, takes part in an otherwise women's only book club, pays attention to his students, and eases complaining parents' worries by allowing their children to take tests again. This, coupled with the fact that so many students get into Ivy League schools and that property values have gone sky high because of his school's desirability, and no wonder Frank gets a virtual standing ovation wherever he goes. His loyal partner-in-crime, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) acts as his Business Administrator, and presides over the development of a multi-million dollar Skybridge for the school, which will add to the prestige. Frank and Pam work hard, banter effortlessly, and have the world at their fingertips. Pay close attention, however, and you'll notice little cracks here and there. It's called Bad Education for a reason. Things go real bad.
Screenwriter Mike Makowsky, who attended Rosyln High around the time of the film's events, impressively peels back the onion layers of the story. He beautifully mines suspense out of each little reveal and twist, giving the film a fantastic forward momentum. I knew nothing about the story going in, and won't spoil those details here, but I haven't felt this confident in a storyteller's abilities since Vince Gilligan blazed a trail with Breaking Bad.
Additionally, he has written for a large cast of characters, all of whom have distinctive voices and a chance to pop. While Jackman and Janney do stellar work, (more on them later), Geradline Viswanathan (a hilarious standout from Blockers) beautifully switches gears by giving a smart, tamped down performance as a student journalist with a great B.S. Detector. She answers to Alex Wolff's Nick, the newspaper editor who only cares about getting into a great college. Wolff, who shined in Hereditary, also surprised me with his ability to inhabit his soul- deprived character. Tony Winner Annaleigh Ashford broke my heart as Gluckin's naive niece and co-worker, a person who thinks her tiny issues have caused so much trouble while neglecting to see the big picture problems right in front of her. Ray Romano knocks it out of the park as the head of the school board, a man who has had his own financial success but can't or won't acknowledge the nefarious schemes because his school has excelled so much. Rafael Casal plays a former student of Frank's who didn't quite live up to his potential. If you think you know Casal from his street-smart writing and acting in Blindspotting, think again. Here's an actor with true range, making himself nearly unrecognizable from before by changing his voice and demeanor to effortlessly slip into the skin of this sensitive gay bartender/dancer. Jeremy Shamos stands out as the put upon accountant who Frank plays like a fiddle to keep him from figuring out what's really happening. I wish Allison Janney had more to do in the second half of the film, but she galvanizes the first half with her fearless characterization of a woman who knows how to bulldoze a conversation to her liking. The accents may be broad, but she, like the rest of the cast, find the specifics of their humanity.
The film, of course, belongs to Jackman. With slicked-back hair and sharp suits, he commands any room he enters. Sure he's relatable lamenting the perpetual charcoal smoothies he drinks for his diet and smooth as he expertly bats off adoring single parents, but there's also something tightly wound and off about him. His early conversations with Pam feel like romantic comedy banter but the details fly by so fast you're not really sure what they're talking about. Stick with it, because Makowsky and Finley know exactly what they're doing to rope you in and make you hold on tight. As it progresses we see more and more of the real Frank emerging. We experience a touching scene in which Frank awkwardly lets down his guard to share a dance with someone. Moments later, we meet the real Frank and it's the most naked and raw Jackman has ever been. Another late scene gives Frank the opportunity to bare his true feelings and intentions on an unsuspecting parent, giving us a glimpse into Frank's motivations, truly ugly but also understandable. It's clear that Frank has had to perform for people his entire life, as he expertly navigates his image. It's a wonderfully modulated, scary, yet humane performance. We may not like what Frank does, but it's easy to put yourself in the shoes of an underpaid, overworked servant to the community.
Finlay and his cinematographer Lyle Vincent keep the film grounded with a realistic, fluorescent, dull sheen. The events may be extraordinary, but they, like Alexander Payne, know how to find life in the ordinary. Composer Michael Abels, who wrote the brilliant scores for Get Out and Us, brings a sense of grandeur to his symphonic cues and the right type of melancholy to the piano pieces. It adds up to a score which supports the dichotomy of Frank's public persona versus the really troubled man underneath.
Janney's first line says so much about the themes of this film, "A wise woman once said, it's not having what you want, it's wanting what you got". We all want nice things in life whether it be a nice place, a comfortable car, exotic travels, a healthy and happy family, to name a few. Sometimes we may ask ourselves what we would compromise in order to have our riches. Are we entitled to them? Do they make us happy? Bad Education, a perfect microcosm of our world today, seems to be saying that it doesn't matter. Maybe wanting is everything.
MULTIPLE CHOICES - My Review of NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (4 Stars)
As much as I liked Eliza Hittman's last film, Beach Rats, I wrote at the time that despite having style to burn, I wasn't convinced she had anything new to say. It came across as a Larry Clark/Terrence Malick/Andrea Arnold summit meeting. With her new film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she has truly found her voice and a deceptively simple filmmaking style to produce a quietly profound, devastating film.
Newcomer Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a 17-year-old girl who performs at the high school talent show when we first meet her. With her family in the audience, she suffers the humiliation of a male classmate coughing up the word "slut" and finds the strength to keep going. It's a beautiful yet painful way to paint a quick picture of this character. Soon thereafter, she discovers she's pregnant. After a failed attempt to self-terminate and encountering many barriers at a local clinic, she runs from her small town Pennsylvania town to Manhattan in search of an abortion. She brings her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) along for emotional support on what they think will be quick daylong trip. Of course, this task proves much more arduous than they had initially thought, leaving the pair stranded in the city with little money and no place to stay.
Hittman has written a bare bones story but has delivered complex emotions in every single scene. Eschewing melodrama and histrionics, Hittman opts for subtlety in order to expose the micro-agressions aimed at women in our society. Back at home, the girls work together at a market in which their manager forces himself on them in the most disturbing way. I had to rewatch the scene a few times to catch what he was doing, and in that moment, Hittman's theme of young girls navigating a patriarchal society without necessarily having the best tools to do so, slowly emerged. Autumn faces a hard-drinking stepfather (Ryan Eggold of New Amsterdam) who clearly has a dark past with her, but Hittman never feels the need to spell things out. We experience the male gaze from Autumn and Skylar's perspectives and it says it all without ever resorting to over-writing or speechifying.
Furthermore, Autumn, a sullen personality on a good day, delivers her entire history to us without every spelling it out. You see it in the way she never asks people how they are after they ask it of her. She has clearly been through some harsh experiences, but she has her walls up to protect herself. One spectacular scene, however, which explains the movie's title, finds her answering personal questions from a social worker. Each one triggers deep-seated emotions, causing her to barely answer the most terrifying of them. Her crumbling face tells the whole, terrible story. It's one of the least fussy powerhouse scenes I've witnessed in a long time. Flanigan and Ryder also make fantastic debuts with these fine, subtle, lived-in performances.
Using a largely female crew, Hittman gets phenomenal work from her cinematographer, Hélène Louvart who has the gift of a documentarian's eye combined with the ability to bring us one beautifully framed, naturally lit image after another. Autumn and Skylar often appear together in many shots which skillfully show their alternately close or distant moments. I particularly loved a scene in which Skylar kisses a young man (Théodore Pellerin) they befriend behind a pole as Autumn reaches out her hand to get Skylar's attention. It's difficult to balance a cinema verite, almost real time style with one that's thought out and composed, but Hittman and Louvart pull it off seamlessly.
I loved that Hittman chose not to fill the film with the usual New York City terrors. It's enough to watch our two leads lug a suitcase around in the rain, to ride the subways all night, and worry about who approaches them. We see a man pleasuring himself in front of them on the subway, yet the way these young women exist in their surroundings packs more punch. A lovely scene in which Skylar applies makeup to a tired, hungry Autumn perfectly found the tenderness and survival instincts this pair possesses. Moreover, they behave like real teenagers. Without eye rolls or snappy dialogue, this pair use a less is more approach to reveal the quiet hellscape of their lives. This terse, blank style works so much better than screaming to the back rows. Hittman doesn't have a loud message for her audience when a muffled scream will suffice. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is small on incident and showy scenes, yet it still manages to roar.
THE WORKING DREAD - My Review of THE ASSISTANT (4 Stars)
We have had our share of horrible boss movies over the years. Think Swimming With Sharks, The Devil Wears Prada, and yes, Horrible Bosses, all of which featured electrifying performances by the actors who got to push their underlings around. Well now, in the age of the #metoo movement, the put-upon support staffer takes center stage and the boss is never seen in documentarian Kitty Green's breathtakingly powerful narrative debut, The Assistant.
Told strictly from the point of view of Jane (Julia Garner), the film navigates a dawn to dusk day in the life of an assistant at a New York film production company. We start with a car service picking up Jane at 4:30am and taking her to a dark Soho office building. She turns on lights, makes coffee, prepares paperwork for the executives, and most tellingly, she dons rubber gloves to clean up from what looks like a party of sorts from the night before. Everything about her dead-inside demeanor indicates this to be a routine, however creepy and disgusting her chores become.
At least that's how I interpreted it, because this film spoon feeds you nothing. Leaning into her prior experience, Kitty Green has crafted a story around tiny details and micro-expressions. As the office fills with various staffers, their lingo feels impenetrably internal and their job descriptions vague at best. It doesn't matter. They all serve the big boss who hovers over them as an angry voice on the phone or as a bellower from behind his office door. Everyone looks calm and professional on the surface, but their behaviors reveal sheer terror. Watch Jane take a phone call from her boss and you'll witness the tiniest of emotional shifts as she accepts a verbal beating. Her co-workers may have been in her position before, but their gallows humor and distance from Jane indicates a "better her than me" attitude.
Green's script offers up one elliptical after the other. Not much really happens except for repetitive tasks, people scurrying around the office, and an assistant who quietly takes the blame for every misdeed, whether it be slight mistakes in travel plans or moving vulnerable people in and out of her boss's path. It's here where the slightest hint of a plot evolves as Julia escorts a young female intern straight from the Midwest around town. Cue the slightly disguised retelling of Harvey Weinstein's grooming techniques in using his staff to lure pretty women into his lair.
Through it all, Jane maintains a hardened expression, the painful aspects of her job swirling just beneath the surface. You want her to explode, to fight back, to quit, but The Assistant seems far more interested in the realities of the situation. Jane needs this job. She needs to do whatever she's told or she's kicked to the curb. It's a disorienting, harsh filmgoing experience, but at 87 minutes, it gets its points across succinctly and sends you on your way to wash the ickiness off and hopefully talk to someone else about what you've just seen.
Garner owns this film, not only because she's in every frame of it, but because she gives a tour de force performance where the slightest tic feels like a silent scream. You may not understand the minutiae of the film business, but anyone can relate to a person just starting out and having to maintain their poise under dire circumstances. She's riveting.
Matthew Macfadyen also excels in his single scene as an affectless HR manager who clearly has zero interest in helping Jane. Despite speaking to her in a soothingly calm manner, his words sent chills up my spine. Everyone at this company is expendable and clearly exist to serve the vile, gross, and illegal whims of their top dog.
Green and her cinematographer Michael Latham use the camera to dispassionately observe the series of events. Never showing off or utilizing unnecessary camera movements, the filmmakers merely record and report, and it's just right. Make no mistake, The Assistant does not fall under the category of Popcorn Flick. It's intense, demanding, confusing, rigorous, and captures the culture exactly as it should. It exposes dynamics which have gone unchecked for decades, hits a raw nerve, and then, like its title character, disappears into the night, leaving us to think about how we're going to handle tomorrow.
WES ANDERSON'S SENSE AND SENSIBILITY - My Review of EMMA. (3 1/2 Stars)
In 1996, Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma made a star out of Gwyneth Paltrow, and a year prior, Clueless, a teen comedy inspired by Austen's novel, catapulted Alicia Silverstone to icon status as well. Now, music video director Autumn de Wilde, making her feature debut and acclaimed novelist turned screenwriter Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries) bring us a new interpretation of the classic and will surely give rise to Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as well as several of her co-stars. Is this remake necessary? Probably not, but it's a perfectly entertaining, beautifully realized film nonetheless.
As those familiar with the tale, Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) lives with her father on a wealthy countryside estate. Filled to the brim with confidence and a slightly condescending attitude of her peers, Emma has no interest in marrying, but loves to play matchmaker. Throughout the story, we experience a musical chairs version of couplings and breakups, leading to Emma's own self-realization. It's a fluffy yet sometimes incisive takedown of a privileged society. Unlike the more comedic Paltrow version, this telling has some bite. The differences in execution lie largely with Taylor-Joy's more acidic interpretation of the title character. She's a bit of a mean girl, and in one instance, she's completely unsympathetic. Additionally, de Wilde along with Production Designer Kave Quinn and Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, opt for highly designed dioramas and vibrant pastels to give Wes Anderson a run for his money. This film has a ravishing, noteworthy look which compliments its clipped, sharp tone. Also, the costumes by Designer Alexandra Byrne have a memorable outlandish avant grade quality that will surely inspire future Rupaul's Drag Race contestants.
Despite this, the film doesn't feel much different than its predecessor or the source material. Regardless, any effort to bring this story to a younger generation feels like a win. I particularly enjoyed the performances. Taylor-Joy may deftly anchor the film with her unwavering take on her character, but Bill Nighy steals every moment as Emma's stoic father. Despite only a handful of lines, Nighy can turn every moment into an opportunity to be funny. He also gets a memorable entrance as he bursts from a stairway in his introductory shot. Same goes for the great Miranda Hart (Spy) as the severely put-upon Miss Bates. She's hilarious and heartbreakingly great. Johnny Flynn (Beast) gives his Mr. Knightly character a mysterious edge, putting a fresh twist on the traditional romantic lead. Mia Goth as Emma's best friend Harriet creates a wholly original character, whether it's how she smacks her gums when she eats or traverses the tough narrative of falling in love with someone who she knows belongs with someone else. She has the ability to portray joy and sadness all at once. Josh O'Connor and Tanya Reynolds as Mr. and Mrs. Elton fit perfectly together as the creepiest of couples. Callum Turner's Frank Churchhill also transcends the period foppishness to show us a man with vulnerability.
The trailer for the film announced itself as a "new vision". On an aesthetic level, sure, I can agree, however inspired they were by The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I found it fairly interchangeable with the original. In this one, Emma doesn't really seem to have learned her lessons, especially in her non-apology scene with Miss Bates. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to comment on the elite never stooping so low as to say they're sorry, which fits in perfectly with our current political leadership. Maybe she just wanted a more honest portrayal of the 1%, or maybe she desired a little more oomph to set it apart from its more self-satisfied earlier incarnation. Either way, Emma. gets a recommend, even with that annoying period in its title! I mean, seriously, it wreaks havoc on spellcheck and seems like the end of a sentence. Stop, Emma, stop!
So many film remakes have offered nothing new from the original, ultimately resembling a quick cash grab more than anything else. Successful ones, however, seem to have absorbed the times in which they're made such as the Red Scare subtext of the 1956 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers outdone by the post-Watergate paranoia in the 1978 remake. With many incarnations under its belt based on the H.G. Wells classic novel, a reboot hardly feels necessary, but naysayers have severely underestimated writer/director Leigh Wannell (Upgrade). The new version of The Invisible Man with its grand score, sleek, ultra-rich design, white knuckle suspense, and powerful female star turn brings an up-to-the-minute subject matter to the table.
Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia, an architect, who when we first meet her, awakens in her Bay Area beach mansion and escapes her abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the middle of the night. A couple of weeks later we catch up with her as she hides away at her police officer friend James' (Aldis Hodge) home which he shares with his whipsmart teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Paranoid and rendered agoraphobic, Cecilia worries her tech-savvy husband will eventually hunt her down. When she learns of his suicide and bequeathal of $5 million to her, Cecilia can finally breathe easily again. Of course, anybody who can read the movie title will know the story does not end here. What starts as intuition before it leads to outright terror, Cecilia soon figures out that Adrian has figured out a way to stalk her by rendering himself invisible.
I won't spoil what follows, except to say that this premise pays off beautifully. In this #metoo era we live in right now, we've learned to listen to and to believe women, especially when reporting discrimination or sexual crimes against them. When nobody believes Cecilia, she's instantly branded as crazy. As such, we feel every bit of Cecilia's isolation thanks to Moss keeping a tight grip on her character and letting us experience her pains and fears every step of the way. Wannell has developed into a director who understands how to acclimate his audience to the spaces his characters inhabit. In one early shot, we see Cecilia prepping her escape. Wannell chooses to pan away from this to show us the distance to the front door. Now, he puts the audience in Cecilia's shoes as we truly understand every quiet step she'll need to take to find her freedom. Wannell also understands suspense, literally mining it out of very little by counting on Moss to convey her ever increasing fears. Sure, he loads the film with jump scares, very effective ones at that, but he takes his time building up to them so that we are first fully on board with Cecilia. From her, from her smarmy brother-in-law attorney (Michael Dorman) and from her estranged sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), we learn not only so much about what makes Cecilia tick, but we also discover how Adrian preyed on her weaknesses.
Wannell's tight screenplay also contains a good handful of surprise twists, one in particular, in a fancy restaurant scene, which stunned me. As things grow more violent and dire, Cecilia lashes out at everyone in her path, furious that nobody will buy into her somewhat preposterous story. Moss seems to have summoned up every horrible Harvey Weinstein story, every abused women's testimonies and channeled it into a stunning display of rage. While the supporting characters deliver fine performances, this film belongs to Moss.
Wannell did fine work elevating the pulpy material of Upgrade. Here, he takes things seriously, but still manages to go delightfully over the top, especially in a scene which involves way more police officers than necessary or even possible. He may be going for a grand scale, but he knows we have to love Cecilia for any of this to work. At times, the film harkens back to such early 90s zeitgeist thrillers as Basic Instinct and Julia Roberts' Sleeping With The Enemy, both solid, populist blockbusters. Like those two, The Invisible Man, while a lot of fun, doesn't achieve greatness. It's fun, bold, surprising, overly-violent, and captures a perfect snapshot of our times, but in the end, it's a really solid B-movie.
CHILDREN OF THE SCORN - My Review of THE LODGE (3 1/2 Stars)
I've always preferred a measuredly paced horror movie over ones with a reliance on frenetic action. Such titles as The Shining, The Strangers, and The Exorcist took great care to build towards a sense of dread. While nowhere close to their quality, The Lodge, from directors Severin Fiala and Veronica Franz (Goodnight Mommy), blends together elements from Hereditary, The Others, and yes, The Shining, to produce an effectively slow-building thriller, yet one with some deeply problematic issues.
After a shocking and traumatizing opening sequence, the film introduces us to Richard (Richard Armitage) and his two young children Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), who head off with Richard's new fiancé Grace (Riley Keough) to their snowy, remote retreat. The children, however, cannot stand Grace, who they look at as an unwelcome interloper. Even their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone), Richard's ex-wife, has poisoned the well when it comes to Grace. Perhaps her past as the soul survivor of her father's death cult and her oddly disconnected way of communicating contributes to their ill feelings, but either way, Grace can't catch a break.
So, in a long list of terrible ideas he has, Richard leaves his kids at the lodge with her for a few days as he goes back to the city to work. No disrespect to death cults, but I'm just not drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to this plot point. Richard, especially at this time in his life, is kind of a jerk when he should just be a good Dad. Needless to say, despite Grace's many attempts to bond with the kids, things go terribly wrong. I won't spoil anything further, but the film does a good job at making you switch loyalties and wonder what's really happening. With a minimalist cast and essentially one set, the directors do an excellent job at presenting claustrophobia and how it can affect a handful of vulnerable people.
Production Designer Sylvain Lemaitre and Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis create a stark, uncluttered look for the film while Composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans elicit fear with staccato strings and eerie soundscapes. Keough, however, owns the film as a woman trying to overcome her past and gain the trust of her future family. She'll keep you guessing right up to the end. Same goes for Martell and McHugh as kids who are either wounded, bratty, sympathetic or psychotic. Think of it as a film filled to the brim with unreliable narrators.
I liked where this movie goes more than I bought into it. Accepting the various machinations requires quite a suspension of disbelief as a very complicated plan clicks into place. I'm also not convinced its depictions of people struggling with mental health ring true. In fact, many may find the film deeply offensive. I'm more saddened that the film leaves few good options for those struggling with internal issues, but I enjoyed the deliciously plodding pace and lead performance enough to forgive its trespasses. Besides, it's almost worth the price of admission alone for a scene in which a young girl reveals what's really important to her when another character almost drowns in an icy lake. You definitely won't feel good after seeing The Lodge, but Fiala and Franz know how to make you feel something. You may find yourself biting your fingernails as characters either try to overcome their pasts or control their futures, one, awful, long moment at a time.
THE FAMILY THAT STICKS TOGETHER - My Review of COLOR OUT OF SPACE (3 1/2 Stars)
Nicolas Cage and the word "bonkers" have formed a pact in so many films, they both have achieved National Treasure status We love a film that goes off the rails, especially when it features Cage unhinged. Pair him with Richard Stanley, a notoriously offbeat personality himself who hasn't directed a feature film in decades, in an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, and you have a sci-fi/ body horror must-see. Be warned. This is pretty gruesome stuff, thus we have an instance here where the meek shall not inherit.
Cage's Nathan Gardner lives on an idyllic farm outside the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts. He grows fruit and raises alpacas while his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) works from home as a Commodities Trader as she recovers from breast cancer. Their three children cover the bases from Wiccan teen Livinia (Madeleine Arthur), stoner son Benny (Brendan Meyer) and the precocious, bespectacled child Jack (Julian Hilliard) and they all have an emotionally astute dog named Sam. They also have an old hippie squatter, Ezra, living in a shack on their property. The fact that Tommy Chong plays him would typically feel out of place, but between the South American camelids, the witchcraft ceremonies, and Cage being Cage, Chong feels like a subtle choice.
When a young hydrologist, our narrator, named Ward (Elliot Knight) arrives to survey the land for a dam project, fate hands him and the Gardners a strange glowing pink meteorite which lands in their front yard one night. Of course no good could come from such an alien presence, but the slow burn at the heart of this film explores the psychological powers it holds over the family instead of what could easily have turned into a War Of The Worlds scenario. One by one, the Gardners lose their minds and then some with Cage delightfully transitioning from mild-mannered Dad to dashboard pounding, shrieking psycho within the course of the second act.
In this stage of the film, their rural idyll goes haywire. Richardson, in particular, rises to the occasion with her fraught-filled arc of a cancer survivor who barely catches her breath before things grow far more dire. The stunning scene in which everything changes for her drew audible gasps from the audience, myself included. Almost everybody feels the effects of this pink invader as it changes brains, bodies, and even the landscape. The final acts lost me with its jumbled storytelling and inability to tie everything together. Still, it manages to deliver many disturbing body horror images in the David Cronenberg tradition. Some moments brought to mind The Thing and Altered States. Those who can't tolerate multiple gross-outs should steer clear.
Despite the many references to other filmmakers, Stanley's return feels welcome, since he puts his own unique stamp on things. Instead of starting out at eleven, Cage modulates his performance well. Yes, eventually gallons of blood get splattered all over the place and people get reduced to wheezing, bubbly blobs, but don't we want that in our heady exploitation movies? Although no home run, Color Out Of Space swings for the fences and earns my respect.
THE NIGHT THE TIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA - My Review Of AND THEN WE DANCED (3 1/2 Stars)
Sometimes it's important to view a film through the lens of its country of origin. What may seem standard for us may feel globally shifting for others. I came to Levan Akin's And Then We Danced with this in mind, knowing full well that the LGBTQ+ communities in Tblisi, Georgia do not enjoy the same rights or even recognition as their more westernized counterparts. The story of a young male dancer navigating his burgeoning gayness in a hyper-masculine, homophobic culture may seem quaint to others, but by immersing myself in his existing circumstances, I walked away mostly charmed and enlightened despite an often formulaic approach.
Akin, a Swedish citizen of Georgian descent, tells the story of Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani, a member of a traditional Georgian dance troupe, who at the outset gets called out by his macho, conversative coach Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) for dancing too softly. Telling everyone that there is no sex in Georgian dancing, his not-so-subtle warning has clearly been aimed at Merab. In fact, one of Merab's contemporaries has been expelled from the troupe for a gay incident. Enter the charming, handsome Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a highly skilled dancer who replaced the ousted member and just in time for an important upcoming tryout. Merab's glances towards Irakli tell us everything we need to know despite Merab having a girlfriend, a fellow dancer named Mary (a sly, subtle performance from Ana Javakishvili). Irakli takes Merab under his wing as they rehearse their auditions together. Of course they fall in love, yet society rears its ugly head by putting countless obstacles in their paths. Still there's no stopping the attractions at play. Between the recent Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and this, they could launch a thousand college theses on same sex gazes.
In a strange way, the film plays like a male Flashdance. Take away the welding helmet and the buckets of water at the strip bar, and you have the story of a working class person who navigates romance on the way to a big, climactic audition scene. They both feel slightly undercooked as well, but at least this film has a society to blame for people not getting to live their authentic lives. It's very easy as a Westerner to yell back at the screen, "Why don't you just kiss him?", but the lives of queer people in so many parts of the world don't allow for it.
Gelbakhiani gives such a beautifully sensitive performance as a man who excels at making Mary think there's something there between them while beelining towards the real truth behind his affections. With very little dialogue about this dichotomy, Gelbakhiani almost entirely conveys his thoughts through his expressive eyes. Valishviki uses his smile and good looks to give a more traditional leading man performance. His makes his journey feel quite touching as he's faced with a decision to either please society or himself. I also really liked the actors who played Merab's parents and grandmother, all of whom were dancers, and feel very protective over Merab and his less dedicated, drug-dealing brother David (a vivid Giorgi Tsereteli), who barely makes an effort at the dance academy.
Through David, the coach, and the menacing owner of the troupe, we experience the ultra-macho side of Georgian life. Dance, to them, feels like a way to glorify the patriarchy, giving permission for men to treat women, as well as anyone who threatens their worldview, terribly. Luckily, the film takes us on a brief interlude into the underground gay world of Tblisi, giving us a shred of hope that there's a life beyond the norms. Akin, however, stays true to the culture he depicts, eschewing fantasy for what seems like a tiny baby step at the very end. Consider it Stonewall, Georgian style.
Cinematographer Lisabi Fridell and Production Designer Tee Baramidze capture the Post-Soviet look of the drab interiors and the amber hues emanating from the street lights. It works well to portray Merab's surroundings as ones he should attempt to escape. This contrasts beautifully to a key sequence in which he and his friends take a trip to a country villa. Everything seems more possible here than in their oppressive urban prison.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard that "coming out" stories just aren't interesting anymore, but without films like And Then We Danced, it's easy to forget how revolutionary it may seem for those who live in much less forgiving cultures. At its Georgian premiere, in fact, anti-gay protesters tried to shut it down. Luckily, they screened it anyhow. I consider that an incredible accomplishment for a film many would say has its shares of cliches. For that, and for the wonderful performances and the authentic design and filmmaking, I'm very happy it has found its place in the world.
SUBTERRALIEN - My Review of UNDERWATER (3 Stars)
Ahh, the new year. A time to make resolutions. A time to hit reset. A time to make a fresh start. A time to delay a film review or two, but I had a bad cold for the entire first month of the year, so yes this is late! It's a time when you can catch up on the films from the prior year which have generated Oscar buzz, and, sadly, it's also a time when movie duds get foisted upon an unsuspecting public. They call January the Studio Dumping Grounds for a reason. That's why a movie like Underwater never had a chance. Shot over three years ago for Twentieth Century Fox, the new Disney regime let it sit on a shelf until that proper slot reserved for their bastard step-children reared its ugly head. Clearly marketed to look like a cheap knockoff of Alien, except under the ocean, the film, strangely enough, rises above, if only slightly, its designated release date.
Director William Eubank, working from a script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, displays a lot of talent with his ability to keep things moving while achieving an impressively claustrophobic and unnerving sense of tone. Unlike Ridley Scott's classic, unfortunately, the film spends almost no time setting up its characters. Scott's deliciously slow first 40 minutes before that first facehugger attack adds so much to the terror, because we've become invested in the people in the crosshairs.
No such luck here, although one could commend the filmmakers for jumping into their story at lightning speed and sustaining its propulsive energy from beginning to end. We first meet Norah (Kristen Stewart) as she brushes her teeth while wearing sweats and a sports bra. After a couple of lines of ominous voiceover, in which she informs us that sometimes you cannot tell what's real and what's not, we get our inciting incident. No need to wait for it, because immediately, something, perhaps an earthquake, rattles her station near the bottom of the Mariana Trench. As the station begins to flood, Norah barely makes it to safety, along with a small handful of Monster Food, also known as her crew mates. They entail a refreshing mix of solid actors (Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick) and T.J. Miller, who does his best Bill Paxton in Aliens imitation. It should spoil nothing that one by one, we experience many deaths until Final Girl Ripley…er…Norah…ends up racing around an escape pod in her panties.
The thin but mercifully short storyline asks our cast of characters to hike on foot from their ruined station through a murky, almost completely dark pathway to the aforementioned pod. Fortunately, Eubank knows how to mine suspense out of each moment, resulting in a series of gorgeously directed and satisfying set pieces. Things may get confusing when one can barely make out the imagery, but it feels deliberate. Eubanks wants to disorient us, so mission accomplished. The addition of undersea monsters, or perhaps aliens, effectively creeped me out, especially when one of them tries to devour one poor human, scuba helmet and all.
Despite most cast members barely registering, including an incredibly tired and offensive trope involving the first victim, Stewart gives a commanding, dynamic performance. If you're gonna rip off Alien, right down to the strobing lights, the incessantly squawking station computer voice, and Stewart's Ripley-esque way of looking to her side in terror (see poster art), then at least we have a star who knows how to bring nuance and vulnerability to every moment she's onscreen. Frankly, I could watch Stewart trying to override a computer all day long. She commits fully to the heavy breathing and the almost violent determination in a way we haven't seen since Weaver yelled at "Mother" in a futile effort to stop the Nostromo from self-destructing.
By the end, I thought to myself, "I didn't hate this. It did leave a sour taste in my mouth with its somewhat hidden message that single people are doomed, but it's all in service of an ending which may take people by surprise. It's not particularly good, but it's well made and suspenseful. Not the worst January Dumping Ground movie I've seen by a long shot." For that, we can all be grateful that Underwater kicked off 2020 in a "not terrible" fashion. I'd like a lot more "not terrible" in what could be a very trying year.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I'll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Underwater gets a 30 out of 50. There's no denying that queer icon Kristen Stewart oozes a sort of sapphic, sporty girl energy, and this film showcases it perfectly. Although the film lacks specific gay content, it's obvious that young queer kids will look up to Stewart after seeing her throw herself into this role with such sexy physicality.
RUDY CAN'T FAIL - My Review of DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (4 1/2 Stars)
Every now and then, a movie energizes me in unexpected ways. When I first saw Animal House, I immediately wanted to start a food fight in the cafeteria. Aliens excited me so much, it remains the only film where I turned around and saw the very next showing. Now, along comes Dolemite Is My Name, from director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood) and it makes me wanna drive around the country with a bullhorn shouting at everyone to drop everything and watch this hilarious, engaging heartwarming, fantastic, true story of a film.
Eddie Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a down on his luck 1970 Los Angeles entertainer. When we first meet him, he's trying to get some of his musical recordings past a DJ (a funny Snoop Dogg) at the record store where they work. We see in this scene how Rudy handles rejection. He's confident and unflappable, which makes you instantly fall in love with him. "A man slams a door in my face," he says, "So I just find another door." How could you not want to follow a character like this wherever he goes? As his Aunt (a perfect Luenell) hears about his comedy aspirations, she lists out his other talents, which includes singing and…wait for it…shake dancing. Murphy finds the never-say-die energy of this man to make you believe he could do pretty well on the non-existent shake dancing circuit.
At night, he tries to win over an audience with hack jokes, but he soon realizes he lacks a clear voice. Like any good writer, he looks around for inspiration and finds it with a group of homeless men in his neighborhood. One man in particular, Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) spins vulgar tales with such elegance, it sounds like early rap. Rudy turns this into his alter ego, Dolemite, a cane wielding, suave pimp, who electrifies the usually docile crowd at the club.
Soon thereafter, Rudy gets a comedy record deal and takes his act on the road. Although a regional success, Rudy has an epiphany in a movie theater one night and realizes he could reach a larger audience and not have to tour as much if he were to make a film. The rest of the story gloriously shows us the process of making his first movie, Dolemite, and creating a sensation as a blaxploitation star. Rudy's can do spirit may not have made him as big of a name as Ron O'Neal or Pam Grier, but many have mentioned his character as an inspiration in the rap and hip hop world. The man left a fantastic legacy.
Much like Ed Wood, the film serves as a beautifully specific look at fringe filmmakers struggling to get their movies made. Murphy clearly knows Rudy's world and invests his character with unforgettable detail and power. It may play to Murphy's comedic style, but his more serious moments never feel melodramatic. He stays true to Rudy's undying will.
While Murphy delivers a galvanizing performance and deserves every award, he heads an extremely strong cast. Keegan-Michael Key plays Jerry, a playwright Rudy ropes in to write Dolemite. Jerry wants to write important plays and haughtily resists the lowdown quality Rudy requires, and it's a joy to watch Jerry come around to embrace the bad acting, the karate chops, the terrible gun play and the insane slapstick. Tituss Burgess (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Mike Epps, and Craig Robinson contribute fun performances as Rudy's support staff, with Tituss playing a more subtle type of gay man than his signature Titus Andromedon. It works and with Murphy's past issues with gay material, it's delightful to see him thriving opposite Tituss for such a large chunk of the film. Fun fact: Kodi Smit-McPhee plays real life UCLA Film Student and Dolemite cinematographer, Nick von Sternberg, son of the legendary director, Josef von Sternberg. His entrance into the film, wherein novice filmmakers meet even more novice filmmakers, makes for one of the many gems this movie has in store for viewers. We haven't even talked about the shaking bed scene, the outrageous car chase, or the iconic moment the gang put on their finest to meet with the suits and strut towards camera in slow motion.
Wesley Snipes makes a fantastic return to movies with his scene stealing role as D'Urville Martin, a pretentious, semi-successful actor Rudy hires to direct Dolemite. When the production runs off the rails, D'Urville's reactions could serve as a roadmap to a perfect character arc. Just watching him call "Action" alone has provided me with endless, gleeful replays. Welcome back, Wesley! Forget action films. Comedy needs you!
Everyone, however, needs to move over and acknowledge Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Lady Reed. Rudy meets this defiant, larger than life firecracker on the road and immediately hones in on a life of pain which would make for a great comedienne. Their double act is hysterical, but as she joins the cast of his film, she transforms into a gorgeously generous woman whose gratitude for being put on screen made for the first of many times I outright bawled.
Brewer does an excellent job of keeping this juggernaut moving along at a crisp pace, and he nails the period details. Alexander and Karaszewski's writing gives us characters not only to root for, but to yearn for and wish them happiness. It may not be the deepest film, but it moved me. They walk a fine line between laughing at the cinematic ineptitude on hand and finding true value in how it made the black community feel. Behind the laughter, people felt empowered. People felt strong. People felt they had a film genre of their own. In the final scene of the film, they lay it all out there and damned if I wasn't sobbing. I felt that rare energy I always want from a movie. So of course, I immediately texted a friend with, "Watched Dolemite Is My Name. Holy Christ is it good!"
I have two words for you: Cats.
But that doesn't make sense, you say? Exactly.
Back in college, it seemed like every performing arts major had that Harvey Edwards "Leg Warmers" photo hanging on their wall. You know the one with the well-worn stockings and the tattered, duct-taped ballet slippers in plié? It signified a commitment to T.H.E. T.H.E.A.T.R.E. - a world of over-enunciations, mid-Atlantic accents, treading the boards, finishing lines to the very end of one's finger tips, and playing to the back row!
I'm convinced Cats was made for them, not only to enjoy but to be a part of in order to hone their "craft". I mean this in a loving, celebratory way. Cats may enter the history books as a gasp-inducing, surreal, plot-free nightmare of gargantuan proportions, but this one's for all the theater geeks who lived to strut across the stage and put on a show. It's that Theater 101 Class which decided to very publicly let the rest of the world in to see its students "be a cat" for a couple of hours.
Tom Hooper, who turned Les Miserables, a show I genuinely love, into a fish-eyed, overwrought live singing, dutch-angled disaster, expands his repertoire a little bit here, but not enough to convince me he should continue directing musicals. He keeps things moving along but the script he co-wrote with Lee Hall doesn't do him any favors. I found myself entertained by individual moments, but nothing really adds up to a contained whole
By now, I think everyone knows that Cats doesn't really have much of a story. A bunch of felines introduce themselves in song until an elder cat selects one of them for the honor of dying, going to kitty Heaven, and being reborn to experience the next one of their nine lives. Think of it as American Idol for the meow crowd, replete with its own Simon Cowell-esque villain. Idris Elba plays Macavity, who tries to destroy the competition by turning them into some type of mist and rebirthing them on a barge in the Thames! Yeah, that tracks.
It all plays out like some long lost variety special from the 1970s. Google Shields And Yarnell if you have to, and then imagine them hissing and prancing around a soundstage as the words "Cats" and "Jellicles" bore their way into your brain. Francesca Hayward plays Victoria, an abandoned cat who acts as our entree into the Picadilly Circus world of our cast. Rebel Wilson pops in to pulverize a character named Jennyanydots, followed by James Corden doing the same with Bustopher Jones. Some lesser known actors show the big celebs how to do it right such as Laurie Davidson as the magician Mr. Mistoffelees and Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, who looks like a young Stephen Colbert in a cat suit. Jennifer Hudson oozes snot and phlegm as the tragic Grizabella, who oversings "Memory" but still managed to make me cry. Jason Derulo appears long enough to put down some outdated funk into our ears. Dame Judith Dench and Sir Ian McKellen appear as elder statescats and commit fully to their Glenda The Good Witch and Mr. Cellophane roles respectively. Taylor Swift appears long enough to convince us that her fake English accent on her hit "Blank Space" was no fluke. Still, I enjoyed her shimmying and sprinkling glitter down on the crowd from atop a descending moon…and that, my friends, is not a sentence I expected to write when I woke up this morning.
Many have quibbled about being able to see Old Deuteronomy's (Dame Dench) wedding ring, but who cares? Unfinished CGI? Crew members in the background? Inconsistent proportions? Furry bodies with human hands and feet? Cats wearing furs made from other cats? Bring it! You're all literally crying over spilled milk. When nothing makes sense, why should anything?
In a script where nothing builds from one moment to the next, the emotional ricochet of it all doesn't do character development or a plot any favors, but it does produce some standout moments. I enjoyed the Artful Dodger "Consider Yourself" type number by Skimbleshanks, the cat who lives on a train, especially when the cast dances on the tracks across London in an extra wide shot. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who created the stage musical and clearly has never met a melody he didn't repeat over and over, cribs from his Jesus Christ Superstar "Hosanna" song with Mr. Mistoffelees' big number, but damned if I wasn't singing along to it anyhow.
Not everything works, of course. Most of it doesn't. The creepy CGI will haunt my dreams, replacing images of Linda Blair vomiting pea soup with uncanny valley humanoids shaking their furry asses in my face. I found what choreography I could see as being uninspired, although it's hard to tell when it gets chopped to bits. The color palette can best be described as Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland threw up on Tim Burton's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and out of the ooze came a mutant version of Moulin Rouge and Chicago. I even take issue with Old Deuteronomy's choice at the end. There's one cat who literally saves her life, yet somehow she doesn't consider that worthy enough. Besides, who really wants to win a contest where the prize is dying, hanging onto a Phantom Of The Opera chandelier attached to a hot air balloon and ascending to some place called the Heavyside Layer? No thanks, I'll take my chances in hell, Dame Dench!
In conclusion, everyone should see Cats. I shouldn't be the only one. When as the last time you left a movie theater with your jaw on the floor? When was the last time you have no idea what you saw, but consider the three vodka tonics and discussion you had with friends afterwards to be a life highlight? When was the last time you saw a musical with only one truly memorable song? Ok, I know the answer to these questions is The Greatest Showman, but now you have Cats! Long live terrible movie musicals! Long live rubbernecking at accidents! Long live the theater nerds who just wanna show off their can-do spirit and give it the old college try! Long live Harvey Edwards! Long live Cats! Now and forever and probably just for the next two weeks at a theater near you.
Men have been looking at women in films since the very beginnings of mainstream moviemaking, but only in recent decades have we seen the opposite. Of course, queer cinema has very much flipped the script on this notion, making the looks given between the same sexes into a veritable trope of its own. Now with the remarkable, masterful Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, the gaze not only illuminates the seen but the seer as well. With such a deceptively simple premise and very spare dialogue, this gorgeously shot film achieves unforgettable levels of complexity and feelings. Take that, queer tropes!
Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy), sets her film in late 18th century France. Marianne (Noémie Merlant ), a painter, receives a commission from La Comtesse (Rain Man's Valeria Golino). She's hired to create a portrait of La Comtesse's daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel ) to entice an Italian suitor. Héloïse has recently found herself kicked out of a convent for mysterious reasons and now lives at home with her mother and their chambermaid Sophie (Luana Bajrami ). Emotionally frail, Héloïse has also lost a sister to an apparent suicide and refuses to sit for a painting. Marianne must study her subject on their daily walks and paint her secretly at night entirely from memory.
Without an incredible filmmaker, this storyline may appear routine, but Sciamma has the visual language skills to create great tension and beauty out of people gazing at each other. An early scene of our two leads walking along an oceanside cliff strikes gold every time Héloïse turns around to notice Marianne studying her. We feel an artist sizing up her subject as much as we feel the sexual attraction beginning to blossom. Sciamma also holds out a stunning surprise later on with regard to those looks. This reveal turns an already beautiful love story into something far more profound.
Sciamma also plays with gender identity quite a bit, with Marianne's first pass at the portrait giving Héloïse a more traditionally masculine countenance. Despite her big, billowy skirts, Marianne also leans into more male traits such as her strong jawline and penchant for smoking pipes. Unshaved armpits may have been the norm at the time, but it also enhances Sciamma's premise even more.
Throughout the film, we experience the artist's painstaking process, basically tearing up each draft until she captures Héloïse's essence. As their love grows, so do Marianne's skills. In the second act, circumstances leave the pair alone with Sophie, who faces an extreme challenge of her own. Free from the strict rules of society, this trio laughs, drinks, plays games and in a great scene, attend an all-female ritual which leads to the image in the title. The title, however, applies to all three of our heroines, who, when given the chance to be themselves, burn with ferocity. It's a distinctly feminist point of view with the added grace of humanism.
A lesser director would have pushed their ideas to the fore more than their characters, but Sciamma clearly understands that the personal is political. We grow to love these women because they refuse to succumb to Hallmark sentiments. Sciamma and her extremely talented cinematographer, Claire Mathon (Stranger By The Lake, another queer classic), favor austerity with occasional bursts of color to establish the film's bleak mood. Much of the movie lives in the gorgeous candle light and stark framing. Characters have been established so well, that when we see our main trio of women walking outside at dusk in exquisite silhouette, we know exactly who is who. Production Designer Thomas Grézaud understands the contained Manor should feel like a prison at times and an oasis at others. The craftsmanship and control of tone reminded me in parts of Michael Haneke's White Ribbon and Jane Campion's The Piano, with a little bit of Bergman's Persona thrown in there for good measure. It's a heady combination, but Sciamma feels ready to play with the other auteurs.
All of this comes together to support its stunning cast. While Golino and Bajrami contribute perfectly realized performances, Merlant and Hanel bring their story to aching life. Merlant has the rare ability to allow us to see clear through her icy exterior, and when she finally cracks a smile, we melt along with her. Hanel, who delivered strong work in BPM (Beats Per Minute), has the tough assignment of making us care for this upper class, somewhat charmless woman. One of the great pleasures of the film comes when Héloïse steps more and more into the world of "the help" to discover who she is and what she truly wants. Art, as always, is the great leveler. Of course, true equality for queer people did not exist in the 1700s, so it would feel disingenuous to assign a happy ending here. What we get instead leads to a final shot of such raw emotion and power, we can't help but think of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire as a magnificent work of art.
IT TAKES A VILLAIN - My Review of RICHARD JEWELL (3 1/2 Stars)
Have you ever loved a movie you know deep in your gut has problematic elements? Did you appreciate the gorgeous cinematography of Triumph Of The Will even though it's a Nazi propaganda film? How can Birth Of A Nation simultaneously exist as something revolutionary and deeply racist? What's next? Well, welcome to Clint Eastwood's latest film, Richard Jewell, a compelling, empathetic look at a hero who morphed into a suspected villain after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games bombing. Because of the current times we live in, and because we're all acutely aware of Eastwood's perceived conservatism, the film almost goes as far as a certain White House occupant in calling the Press, "the enemy of the people". Still, Eastwood and his very left leaning writer, Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), have crafted an impressive underdog story which just may make you think twice about the next heavyset rube you judge too quickly.
The film stars Paul Walker Hauser, so memorable in I, Tonya, as a security guard who spots an unattended backpack in Centennial Park and attempts to clear the area. Although his actions minimized the fatalities and saved many lives, the FBI and the Press soon enough painted him as the culprit. He went from hero to zero overnight and one could argue his reputation never fully recovered. The first act provides us with Jewell's backstory as a law firm's mailroom clerk, presided over by Sam Rockwell's Watson Bryant. They strike up an unlikely friendship which will pay dividends at a later time. Jewell eventually moves on to become a put-upon campus security guard with aspirations to join the police force. He lives at home with his loving mother Bobi (a vivid, lived-in performance by Kathy Bates) and despite the jeers he gets from students, he has a fearless, confident, jump-right-in approach to everything he does. I appreciated this early section for not painting Jewell in angelic strokes. He has a temper and a slightly authoritarian streak, which will clearly come back to haunt him.
After the bombing, the FBI, represented here by Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez, start to realize that everything doesn't add up, leaving Jewell as a prime suspect. When reporters from the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) catch wind of this, the events systematically begin to dismantle Richard's life. Olivia Wilde as real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs and David Shae as her fellow journalist Ron Martz appear ominous at first, prowling the city at night like some shadowy figures ready to pounce. While Martz comes across as the slightly mysterious straight man, Wilde lives up to her last name and barrels through the film. It's a fearless, middle finger, flirty, seductive, scene-stealing role, and Wilde clearly relishes it.
Unfortunately, the suggestion that Scruggs traded on her sexuality for intel has caused much controversy and consternation amongst viewers and even amongst the staff of the AJC, who have come to her defense since she sadly passed away in 2001. I can understand this, considering Eastwood's political leanings. The main villains in the film seem to be the FBI and journalists. It sounds so 2019, doesn't it? Personally, I look back at the Richard Jewell story as a bellwether for things to come. We saw then how public perception can turn on a dime, something all-too-common now.
It's enough to leave an icky taste in my mouth were it not for the excellent filmmaking, writing, and performances. Eastwood achieves great tension during the inciting incident and allows Hauser's fantastic skills to guide us through his truly affecting emotional journey to clear his name. Lesser films would have presented Jewell as a gentle giant, a saint with no faults whatsoever. Jewell may have a sad sack quality, but he's also cunning, a bit of a blowhard, and disarmingly direct. Try watching a late scene involving a donut without wanting to give the guy a big hug as you quietly pat your tears dry. Rockwell also excels as a man who learns to beam with pride at a man he once barely noticed.
With Richard Jewell and the upcoming Bombshell, we get conservative characters at the center of their stories. Is Hollywood catering to Trump's base now? Should Hollywood only explore stories with liberal themes? It's a conundrum far too icky for me to dwell upon, especially when the filmmakers evoke the "fake news" mantra and give Jon Hamm such a sneering final line. It all makes me want to stick my head in the sand and just cheer for the little guy who finally gets his day in the sun.
FOX PAS - My Review of BOMBSHELL (3 1/2 Stars)
I love films because they provide an opportunity to experience other cultures, other parts of the world, differing opinions, historical events, and more in a compact period of time. This year alone, I "traveled" to a South Korean suburb, to a 19th century New England coastline, into outer space with Bard Pitt, inside the mind of a Hitler Youth, to a Manhattan rooftop with JLo, to a Chinese household with Awkwafina, and to an alternate universe where I fell in love with Sharon Tate all over again. Man am I tired…and invigorated…and…um…tired! Mostly, however, I'm enriched by the opportunity to go to so many places.
Consider my excitement when I had the chance to take a peek behind the closed doors of one the most conservative establishments in the world, Fox News. Tracing the scandal which erupted after its head, Roger Ailes sexually harassed multiple women, Bombshell provides a rare glimpse for liberal Hollywood to dip its toes into a different world view. Despite mixed results, the film proves highly entertaining while also feeling a little icky to this left leaning critic.
Featuring three powerhouse leads in Charlize Theron, who literally becomes Megan Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as a fictional composite character named Kayla, the film, directed by Jay Roach (Game Change) and written by Charles Randolph (The Big Short), splits itself into three to tell their specific sexual harassment experiences involving John Lithgow's booming, towering portrayal of Ailes. As such, the story lacks one clear protagonist, but with a pace so speedy, writing so clever, a premise so charged, and performances so energizing, I ultimately didn't care.
Unfortunately, it all emanates from a liberal point of view. When it comes to politics, Hollywood most often can't help but distance itself from anything that reeks of Republicanism. It's a way of saying, "Hey, we know they're the cesspool of all things evil and wrong with the world today". Whether you agree with that statement or not, the issue of sexual harassment transcends the political spectrum. As such, I applaud that Bombshell enters the discussion from a fresh perspective. For the most part, it honors the people it portrays but can't help itself in taking jabs nonetheless. I would have preferred a "just the facts" presentation, but I suppose it's hard to resist when a news organization that calls itself "fair and balanced" proves time and again it's not.
Despite this fundamental issue, the film blazes away like a stiff-collared, tight skirt-wearing version of Broadcast News, and I wanted it to last much longer. Robbie's Kayla finds herself on an upward trajectory at Fox. She quickly befriends Kate McKinnon's Jess, a lesbian liberal who hides in plain sight as a Fox News producer. It's through McKinnon's character that Hollywood gets to take its biggest jabs, and despite the obviousness of it, McKinnon gives a vibrant, hilarious performance. Same goes for such standouts as Alanna Ubach, a dead ringer for Jeanine Pirro, Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, and Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani, but it's the work of our three stars who elevate this film.
Theron, no stranger to transformative roles, does it again here. She may have had some help with some well-placed prosthetics, but her voice, her command, and confidence really stand out as she struts around the newsroom plotting the resistance against Ailes. Robbie has the biggest arc as the Christian fundamentalist newbie who tears your heart out in her big scene with Ailes. It's creepy, gross, so wrong and something no woman should ever have to experience. Robbie's such a gifted actor, she crackles and sparks with everybody. Kidman may have the least challenging role of the three, but I would never underestimate her power to draw you in and feel the pressures and indignities at her job. She's also the catalyst of the story with her lawsuit against Ailes. A shame the three rarely share the screen together in the film, because the big highlight features the three of them in a wordless elevator scene which proves to be a master class in body language and side-eyes.
Roach and Randolph give us a slick, firing-on-all-cylinders approach, immersing us into this world where breathing room has no place. I hate to say it, but it's a fun film about a terrible problem. I felt such compassion for people I have often over-simplified in my mind. I would have liked to know more about our main characters' political leanings and seen it presented with as much conviction as we'd get with a deep dive into the rooms at CNN, but Hollywood wants to have its cake and eat it, too. I say, stop eating and just let me have a look at that cake, ok?
ADAM'S BROKEN RIB - My Review of UNCUT GEMS (4 Stars)
Life can be a messy, loud, out of control experience, and sometimes that's just what's in your head. Add the honking, incessant cacophony of New York City and you're not getting sleep anytime soon. The Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh, understand this all too well, gifting Robert Pattinson with a mesmerizing character in their previous feature, Good Time, and now getting the performance of a lifetime out of Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, a blistering, endlessly tense, dread-filled thriller. It almost begs you to give up watching it with its non-stop wall of sound and brutal failings of its main character, Howard Ratner. Stick with it, and you may feel hideous, but no doubt impressed with its ability to find compassion for such a difficult person.
Sandler's Ratner runs an appointment-only jewelry store in New York's Diamond District circa 2012. He impulsively gambles, dodges collectors, cheats on his exasperated wife, and stupidly loans out a rare Nigerian gemstone. He does all of this concurrently, roaring at anyone and everyone, bouncing around trying to put out the bonfires that make up his life. Our first image of him shows Howard at the end of his colonoscopy. We literally meet his bowels before we meet the man, suggesting we're about to know this man inside and out.
The Safdies, along with their co-writer/editor Ronald Bronstein, clearly worship films like Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and perhaps Gasper Noé's anxiety-filled productions. Uncut Gems folllows Howard relentlessly from one unfortunate circumstance after another. Always right on the verge of big payoff from a successful gamble, Howard's hubris and non-stop swearing at anybody and everybody, sabotages anything good that could ever occur. He's a louder, more toxic cousin to Ignacius Reilly from A Confederacy Of Dunces, a man so out of control he gets arrested for just standing in a mall minding his own business.
Howard knows that his rare gem could fetch millions at an upcoming auction, but when his associate Demany (an excellent LaKeith Stanfield) introduces him to his celebrity client, Kevin Garnett, then a star player for the Boston Celtics, he lets Garnett borrow it because he thinks it will bring him luck at the upcoming playoffs. Guys like Howard, however, never win, and nobody knows this better than Howard himself. Sandler understands such self-loathing, never once playing Howard as a sad sack but as a man who's confidence and bravado mask a person truly hurting inside. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Dinah, a steely perfect Idina Menzel, no longer buys what Howard's selling. Neither does his teenage daughter, who can barely look up from her phone long enough to put up with his nonsense. His employee/girlfriend Julia, a star making debut for Julia Fox, will seemingly do anything for Howard, but she also has a wandering eye and a hair-trigger temper. She's fantastic, as is Eric Bogosian as a brutal loan collector whose surprising connection to Howard makes him almost as scary as his frightening henchman, played by Keith Williams Richards.
Like a modern day version of 1917, the film, urgently shot by the great Darius Khondji, relentlessly follows our protagonist through his descent into hell. Daniel Lopatin's synth-heavy, retro score sounds like somebody playing Flashdance too loudly in the other room, yet it perfectly captures Howard's fantasy life. He's a man whose dreams play out better in his head than on the unforgiving streets. It all culminates in a gorgeously sustained third act, which plays out as a doomed hostage situation. Yet, it's all just a typical day for Howard, who can't even go to his daughter's school play without ending up naked in the trunk of his own car. Sandler excels here, especially in a scene where he realizes nothing ever works out for him. Sandler knows this guy with his desperate smile, his strange glasses, his pathetic come-ons and his bottomless well of rage. Sandler and the Safdies understand the male ego, the entitlement, the showy multi-tasking and the sheer loneliness of a guy who can't catch a break. I don't think I ever want to run into Howard again, but Sandler has grabbed his place in cinema history by the balls. It's unfortunate that most people will not want to embrace such a feel-bad-movie, one which would have thrived in the anti-hero 70s cinematic era, but for the brave souls who like to be shaken and stirred, they could do worse than a Safdie brothers film.
HANKS FOR THE MEMORIES - My Review of A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (3 1/2 Stars)
Fresh off her triumph with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller switches gears from the edgy nihilism of that film to one of pure optimism with A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, it focuses on the very personal connection journalist Tom Junod had with Mr. Rogers while writing a profile on the beloved icon. Its success depends entirely on your ability to keep a straight face in the presence of such unbridled goodness. I'm a pessimistic Jew, so I tend to reject sentimental material as a rule, but this movie has enough weirdness and creativity to carry you through its often maudlin material.
Those going in expecting a Fred Rogers biopic may feel disappointed, as Tom Hanks' portrayal takes a back seat to Matthew Rhys' Lloyd Vogel, a fictionalized version of Junod. Check out the incredible 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? for the full Rogers treatment and your inevitable weeping. This film bookends itself as if it were a very special episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, allowing Hanks' Rogers to tell the story of an absent father and his long-suffering son. It's a fascinating way to tell Vogel's story about coping with his disinterested dad Jerry, played here with equal parts gusto and fragility by Chris Cooper.
As a depressive adult who lives in New York City with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson from This Is Us), Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to write a story about Rogers. At first insulted by such a soft assignment, he soon finds Fred's worldview fascinating. With as much baggage as Lloyd has, he finds the softspoken, open hearted Fred to be somewhat of an aberration, but ultimately even he can't resist his charms. It's impossible not to melt when a group of young subway passengers sing Rogers' theme song back to him, or when Fred challenges Lloyd to a full minute of silence as they stare at each other in a diner. Rogers, especially through Hanks' disarming performance, truly changed the world, offering up a generosity of spirit carefully crafted to combat the evils of society.
Your threshold for mush will definitely color your opinions of the film as a whole. Rhys, however, who with The Americans proved himself as a world class actor, does wonderfully subtle, unforced work here. Just the downward turn of his head during some difficult scenes speaks volumes and his rapport with Watson brings some welcome humor to the proceedings. Much of the movie, however, delves into some pretty uncomfortable moments between Lloyd and his father. Ultimately, it all felt like a very special episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which, while clearly the mission of the film, got a little old for me.
Luckily, Heller, who showed off her creative chops with the animated sequences in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, delightfully uses miniature planes and cars to illustrate every time Lloyd travels. It all adds up to an immersive experience into the Rogers aesthetic. Mileage may vary depending on your willingness to let all that love envelop you. Regardless, we all could use a little bit of Mr. Rogers' mist in our lives, even if it sometimes feels like the glitter that falls off of a Hallmark card.
BARELY LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY - My Review of DARK WATERS (3 1/2 Stars)
I've often wondered if Wes Anderson were to drop his dioramas and deadpan style, could he make a good, straight up drama? What does a Christopher Nolan musical look like? Does Quentin Tarantino have a Tiffany Haddish comedy in him? Can auteurs put their stamp on made-for-hire movies? These questions keep me up at night. Well, finally when it comes to Todd Haynes, as idiosyncratic as they come, we now know what he brings to a procedural drama. The answer? Hmmmmm. Be careful what you wish for?
That doesn't mean Dark Waters, the true story of a corporate attorney who sues his own client doesn't have merit. I actually think the movie works really well, but I can't identify the filmmaker who brought us Velvet Goldmine, Carol or Far From Heaven here. Written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the story spans decades, promisingly opening with an eerie Jaws-like sequence in which some 1970s teens swim naked in a polluted West Virginia lake. You can feel Haynes in this scene more than anywhere else in the film, considering its haunting, dreamlike imagery.
Flashing forward to the late 1990s, the story properly starts when a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (a magnificent Bill Camp) barges in on Cincinnati Corporate Attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to demand he return to his home town in West Virginia to investigate why his cattle have all started dying. At first dismissing him as a crazy rube, Bilott decides to make the 120 mile drive to see for himself. It doesn't hurt that his biggest client, DuPont, has a plant there which just may be poisoning the water supply. Spoiler alert: They are!
One night at a fancy dinner, Bilott confronts a DuPont executive (a perfectly insidious Victor Garber) and gets such an obvious brush-off that he can't help but go down that rabbit hole. Risking his standing at his law firm, presided over by Tom Terp (an unpredictable and passionate performance by Tim Robbins), to launch an investigation which takes over 20 years to complete. It nearly kills him and deeply affects his marriage to his wife, a former attorney played by Anne Hathaway, and relationship with his son. Think Erin Brockovich without the humor and you'll get a good sense of the tone of this dreary, dark, nihilistic film.
In 1995, Todd Haynes made the film, Safe, starring Julianne Moore as a woman with severe environmental allergies. It was weird, experimental, and abstractly haunting. Dark Waters feels like the straightforward cousin to that film as it explores corporate greed and cover-ups and the lives left in the balance. Yes, the great cinematographer Ed Lachman has a wonderful way of making you feel every bitter cold early sunset with his black, grey and dark blue color schemes. Yes, the very talented and versatile production designer Hannah Beachler knows her way around working class homes. It all comes together as a consistently bleak presentation, tailor made to make you feel the sheer hopelessness of taking on "the man".
Ruffalo does incredible work as a defeated, hunched over workaholic who never gives up the fight. We see nothing showy in his performance. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders when he realizes that DuPont has exposed almost the entire population on earth to harmful chemicals. Hathaway also does excellent work as someone in the typical "wife" role who refuses to be identified as such. She very slyly walks that fine line to give us something heartfelt and strong. Bill Camp, however, walks away with the film with his almost indecipherable drawl and righteous anger at a system which ignores the safety and well being of the hard working citizens of the world. Often specializing in low key characterizations, he switches gears and goes unforgettably big and loud. In what amounts to a compelling yet quite ordinary telling of an important story, it's Camp who cuts through. Todd Haynes may not have made a "Todd Haynes Movie" with Dark Waters, but at least he has given us Great Camp.
BLAMER VS. BLAMER - My Review of MARRIAGE STORY (4 Stars)
White middle class couples getting divorced haven't really set the cinematic universe on fire for many many years. In its heyday, such films as Ordinary People, Kramer Vs. Kramer, and An Unmarried Woman garnered serious box office and Oscar attention. Nowadays, it's a miracle if a small indie tackles the subject and gets a streaming release. Tastes have shifted. Other issues have taken up more importance in our collective minds. Other voices have rightfully staked their claim. So, when I heard Noah Baumbach's latest film had made its way to the top of many lists, I felt an enormous amount of skepticism. Do we really need to see a successful theater director and his actor wife fight over which lovely home in which wonderful town they can agree upon to raise their young son? I smelled huge blowouts around huge kitchen islands in my moviegoing future.
Luckily, Baumbach, always an astute observer of human behavior, knows people like me all too well and prepared himself for the backlash by inserting a scene in which a courtroom judge lays out the champagne problems of it all. With that at the very least acknowledged, we end up with a searing, detailed, emotionally powerful, beautifully acted story less about divorce but about finding one's humanity in times of crisis. It opens with a beautifully realized montage in which Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) read from essays they've written about each other over highly specific scenes from their marriage. The sequence ends, however, with those essays being presented to a mediator who presides over their separation. Charlie and Nicole seem effortlessly polite and sometimes loving with each other, promising to eschew lawyers and make their split amicable. Perhaps because they have a young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) or maybe they're just good people, but their divorce feels…nice. We know that won't last.
Soon enough, Nicole has left their comfy New York home to star in a pilot in Los Angeles. There, she's introduced to a powerful divorce attorney Nora (Laura Dern) who with her serenely cutting line deliveries ensures an ugly battle ahead. This move forces Charlie to lawyer up with the scene-stealing Alan Alda as his council. From here, the film starts to resemble a courtroom drama, but it avoids the all-too familiar tropes by bringing us those in-between scenes in which Charlie and Nicole hash things out in private. It's a scenario played out with equal parts kindness and dread as each reveals details and motives better left unsaid. It culminates in a stunning argument, a gut punch of a ten minute sequence in which Driver and Johansson do the best work of their careers to date. Same goes for a matching pair of musical sequences in which each actor sings Sondheim songs from "Company", and, against all odds, it works like gangbusters.
It also helps that the supporting cast delivers on all fronts. Aside from Dern, who almost runs away with the movie and practically demands a standalone Nora spinoff project, I loved Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole's mother and sister respectively. Wever mines so much comedy out of a scene in which she needs to serve Charlie his divorce papers and Hagerty, who has reached National Treasure status by now, kills with her patented goofball charm. Ray Liotta has a field day as one of Charlie's attorneys, sparring with Nora while also finding these credible grace notes when the two trade light, personal anecdotes. There's the famous quote, "Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement", and nowhere is this more true than in the dynamics between Dern and everyone else with whom she shares the screen. We're used to her delicious freakouts, but here, she glides on a razor blade and in one amazing monologue, she more than earns her inevitable Oscar nomination. A special mention also goes to Martha Kelly (Baskets) who uses her deadpan delivery to perfection in her scenes as a parental evaluator.
Baumbach does some of his best writing and directing here. Clearly he has taken a page out of the Woody Allen playbook of allowing for offscreen space and framing which accentuates the distance between characters, but he also deftly utilizes monologues and creates a sense of urgency despite saddling his actors with overwritten dialogue. In lesser hands this would have felt like a bad play, but this film blends humor and drama so well, you may find yourself completely wrapped up in it. I also loved the scene in which our two leads shut a stuck gate. It's a fine example of how editing and matching shots can achieve an intended effect. This film could have easily slipped into cornball pathos, but because the characters have reached such vivid levels, it never does. By the time it reaches its wonderful throwaway of a final scene, which could have gone the way of so many "important" moments we've seen endlessly, you may find yourself exhausted but completely in love with these flawed, unpredictable, and unforgettable characters. Marriage Story makes the divorce movie important again.