Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Marriage Story (2019): A Review

MARRIAGE STORY

After a brief theatrical run to qualify for awards consideration, Marriage Story slipped into the safe confines of Netflix, though with news that it would have a Criterion release later in 2020. Well-acted, with some excellent writing, I still could not shake the idea that Marriage Story was essentially Kramer vs. Kramer: The Next Generation.

Marriage Story is a misnomer, as the film really is about the divorce of actress Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and her director husband Charlie (Adam Driver). Nicole had earned great success in a breakout performance in the teen sex comedy All Over the Girl, where she famously lifted her top & exposed her breasts.

At this point I ask how this particular moment could, in any universe, be considered some kind of generational iconic moment but there it is.

Having worked in Charlie's avant-garde theater for about ten years, and with a child, Henry (Azhy Robertson), the Barber marriage has irretrievably broken down. She goes to Los Angeles to film a television pilot, and while both acknowledge their marriage is ending they both had agreed to use mediators and not lawyers in their divorce.

Image result for marriage storyLittle does Charlie know that Nicole is persuaded to hire Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), powerhouse divorce lawyer in a Gloria Allred manner (at least Nora reminded me of Allred). Charlie, still slightly oblivious or at least inattentive, with a firm belief they are a "New York" family versus a "California" family, bungles his own responses. He wavers between equally cutthroat lawyer Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) and genial but weak Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), mainly for financial reasons.

Things keep getting harder for Charlie, as he's essentially being bled dry financially to keep any kind of custody, and not even a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship helps. Nicole, for her part, keeps integrating Henry more and more to her side of the family to where Henry is slowly becoming a stranger to his father. Things as trivial as trick-or-treating turn into battles over costumes and times.

Charlie finally decides to fire Bert, hire Jay and fight, both lawyers dragging their opposing sides through the mud by bringing up adultery and potential alcoholism. Charlie and Nicole try to be civil but end up having a massive battle of their own.

Eventually, after all the Sturm und Drang they put both Henry and each other through, both finally divorce and have terms they can live with. A year later, Charlie accepts a residency in Los Angeles to be closer to Henry while Nicole received an Emmy nomination for directing an episode of her television series. As Henry struggles to read the letter where Nicole praises the positives of her now ex-husband, both are moved and find a semblance of peace. 

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Perhaps the film was titled Marriage Story because the title Divorce His, Divorce Hers had already been used for a Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor miniseries. To my own surprise, Marriage Story is my first experience with the oeuvre of writer/director Noah Baumbach. I never even saw Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, which he co-wrote. Baumbach mined his own life in Marriage Story, a kind of exorcising, idealizing, perhaps even romanticizing of Baumbach's own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Here is a directorial genius and the ingenue who starred in an iconic teen comedy (substitute Fast Times at Ridgemont High for All Over the Girl, though to be fair I've never seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High). The director is a New Yorker (like Baumbach), and the couple have one son (like Baumbach and Leigh). I do not know if more people have commented on the autobiographical nature of Marriage Story, but I cannot imagine that Baumbach isn't if not flat-out recreating his divorce experience at least drawing from it.

Try as I might I could not see how there weren't "villains" in Marriage Story. Yes, Nicole and even Charlie had faults, but I found myself mostly siding with the latter. His sacrifices were greater, as were his incapability to understand the minefields he was going through and his struggle to "play dirty".  I think it's next to impossible to not gravitate towards Charlie during the Halloween sequence.

Image result for marriage storyCharlie had his costumer make a special costume for Henry only to have his son reject it in favor of what his cousins wore, with Nicole barely hiding her disinterest in the whole matter. Her obstinacy, almost dismissive manner about where Charlie, who does not know the Los Angeles metroplex as she does, could go to my mind does not endear her to me.

Then there's Nora. Laura Dern has received much praise for her performance, but to me, it veered close to cartoonish, particularly the much-heralded "Mother" speech. Nora's views on fathers to my mind comes across as hateful, angry, hard.

And for the record, my own father left when I was a baby and made it clear he wanted nothing to do with me, so I can't be accused of not being sympathetic to one-parent households with women as the heads of family.

Dern's whole performance seemed almost too self-aware, but many people love it. I didn't, but there it is.

I did, however, love Johansson and Driver as Nicole and Charlie. They had wonderful, deep moments, such as Nicole's monologue about how she saw her married life or Charlie's quiet rage whenever he tries to bond with Henry.

As a side note, this Henry reminded me of Kramer vs. Kramer's Billy in that both were rather horrible children whom I grew to dislike. I'm a child of divorce, and I've known a few children of divorce. I don't remember myself or any of them being this whiny, mopey or downright obnoxious. It's almost a trope by now.

To be fair, despite being more with Charlie than with Nicole, I did find the lot of them rather horrible people. The film felt so long I was desperate for this ride into divorce hell to end. Charlie's bravest act is to sing Sondheim (and for the record, while I didn't know the song, Being Alive from Company, I recognized Sondheim's style of essentially 'talking to a melody'). As a side note, Driver isn't bad as a singer.

Marriage Story is elevated by the performances of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, but part of me thinks more of their parents' marriage story, better known as Kramer vs. Kramer. Finally, for all the constant shout-outs to "the spaces" and ability to walk in Los Angeles vs. New York City, we all know that "nobody walks in L.A.".



DECISION: B-

Monday, January 27, 2020

One Child Nation: A Review

ONE CHILD NATION

I think many people still have the impression that China has a "one-child" policy, with strict punishments for those who violate it. While the "one-child" policy was officially scrapped in 2015 and perhaps the object of mockery in the West, One Child Nation delves into the true horrors of the one-child policy. It's a chilling but necessary document to the power of the State, of propaganda and the powerlessness of the people whose lives were wrecked by the dictates of an all-powerful and unquestionable government.

Director Nanfu Wang serves as our guide in this tale of terror. Wang was born and raised in China during the official One-Child Policy time period of 1979 to 2015 but now lives in the United States; she is unique among her generation however. Unlike most of her compatriots, she had a brother thanks to official government policy allowing for two children provided they lived in a rural area and were five years apart. The Wang family was fortunate that the second child was a boy (Nanfu, we are told, translates to "Man Pillar", the hope for a male strong in the family).

If her brother Zhihau had been a girl, the child's fate may have been brutal to horrific. A metaphorical girl could have been left in the market to die, or essentially sold to government-run orphanages which in turn would put the "orphans" up for adoption to foreigners, regardless of whether the parents wanted their child sent away or not. At worse, the government would do anything to the family, ranging from the 'mild' punishment of having their homes torn down to the brutal act of forced abortions and sterilizations.

Related imageAt this point, one can agree that even if one supports unlimited and unfettered abortion, the State forcing women to abort their nine month fetuses and be sterilized against their will is appalling.

Unless you are Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who would see such acts as the ultimate achievement in women's reproductive health, but I digress.

Wang finds that the State induced somewhere from 50,000 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions, with some fetuses born alive and left in ditches and dumps as 'medical waste'. The Chinese Communist government used the full power of the State, funding operas and the various folk arts to promote its "population war".

Girls in particular were victims, the desire and sexism of Chinese culture deep and embedded. This sexism is within Wang's own family: her beloved Grandfather would take pictures with only his two grandsons, not with his granddaughters like Nanfu. Her own mother, a teacher still living in China, was named Zaodi, which translates to "Bring me a younger brother soon".

Nanfu, now a mother herself, can only reflect on the damage the One-Child Policy inflicted on both her own family and her people; she now sees the Chinese government applying a new strategy to make up for a declining population: a Two-Child Policy, using the same tactics it used to implement the One-Child Policy, the memory of which is fading among a people who either would rather forget or choose to remain silent.

Image result for one child nationAs you traverse through One Child Nation, you cannot help but feel a mix of horror and immense sympathy for all those who suffered under it. In the same way The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution decimated the Chinese people and their heritage, the One-Child Policy had terrible and tragic consequences.

Two themes, two refrains keep coming back among the various interviewees Wang talks to, both within and without her family. The government officials who enforced the policy, the midwives who induced abortions against their own wishes, the artists who document the nation's memory, even those convicted of being baby snatchers, all give variations of two claims. Each of them says either "the policy was very strict" and/or "I had no choice".

"I had to put the national interest above my personal feelings," a retired official states somewhat matter-of-factly. None of the people here are actually evil, but One Child Nation shows that when pressed, even those who genuinely wanted their child had to kowtow to the State's wishes. While not overtly an anti-Communist film, One Child Nation shows how individuality is crushed by the collective.

The nation, indoctrinated via the arts and slogans to keep the population down, even through playing cards and matchboxes, found themselves condemning defenseless newborns to be left to die, to be taken to profiteering orphanages, or to be essentially killed at birth. The midwife interviewed now works exclusively with those suffering from infertility, atonement for what she was made to do.

This is where One Child Nation is at its best: seeing how the policy impacts the individual, even those who did nothing with regards to the actual policy itself. The artist who painted and photographed the fetuses states, "The most tragic thing for a nation is to have no memory", a chilling statement given how now the Two-Child Policy is supplanting the memory of the One-Child Policy and its aftereffects.

The film does not exactly lose its way when it goes into the work of Research China, an organization that serves as a clearinghouse for information to adoptive parents and the Chinese children they took in. However, at times it feels as if One Child Nation will veer into a 'search and reunite' film than a documentary on the One-Child Policy itself.

That is a minor quibble, as One Child Nation paints a devastating portrait of a government policy that wrecked and in many cases ended the lives of millions.

DECISION: B+

Sunday, January 26, 2020

21 Bridges: A Review


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21 BRIDGES

Chadwick Boseman is one of the most talented and charismatic young actors working today. As such, it is thoroughly astonishing that 21 Bridges makes him into one of the most boring and bland characters in any film. It's a sign of how bad 21 Bridges is that not even his exceptional talent can lift such dismal material.

Detective Andre Davis (Boseman), son of a fallen police officer, has earned a reputation for pursuing criminals who kill police officers, the niceties of the law be damned. Now he finds himself pursuing perhaps the biggest case of his career.

Two criminals, hothead Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitch) and more thoughtful Michael Trujillo (Stephan James), go to a fancy restaurant to steal a stash of cocaine hiding there. To their surprise, the stash is not only much larger than they thought but they find themselves surprised by police officers who just so happen to show up at the same time.

A shootout ensues, with up to eight police officers getting killed. Davis and his partner Burns (Sienna Miller) now begin their hunt, and Davis gets the reluctant help of 85th Precinct Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) to close Manhattan and its '21 bridges' to trap our cop killers. However, Davis has until 5 a.m. before the bridges are opened.

As Davis and Burns close in on Ray and Michael, we get twists and turns in this race against time. Davis eventually tracks both down, but Ray and Michael are killed by the police, the latter by Burns herself. Michael, however, gives Davis some flashdrives that lead Davis to the mastermind of massive police corruption.

One guess as to who the mastermind is, and one more guess to know who else was involved.

Image result for 21 bridges movieIt does not seem totally fair to give a review given how often I kept drifting off to sleep during 21 Bridges. As such, perhaps the nuances of Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan's screenplay escaped me. However, from what I saw and remember in 21 Bridges, I saw a film that was wildly violent, almost gleefully so, but one where such things as character, plot and even sense went flying out the window.

Boseman looked almost bored throughout the film. While he's supposed to be a kind of super-cop I don't think his expression changed once throughout the film. It did not matter whether he was shooting at Ray or Michael, holding a dying Michael, realizing who was in on the corruption or in a shoot-out with the mastermind or the henchman, Boseman looked like he didn't care.

Then again, no one really acted in 21 Bridges. They just attempted to get through this to cash their check and hope no one noticed they were in the film. Miller is probably the most unintentionally funniest of the lot: her "Nuu Yawk" accent coming across as almost a spoof than a sincere stab at sounding like a cop from the Bronx. The script wants to 'develop' Burns by mentioning her infant daughter, but that only makes her decisions more odd to irrational.

Simmons similarly played his Captain McKenna as someone who knew he was going to be found out and didn't really bother trying to hide.

Alexander Siddig as the banker to the drug dealers didn't seem sure if he was supposed to play it up as camp or not. I do feel genuine sorrow for Kitch and James, in particular the latter. James, like Boseman, is a very talented actor and while he gave probably the best performance as Michael he too had little material to work with. Kitch had one mode: crazed, so I can't put his performance as something great.

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As a side note, and it may just be me, but why not hire actual Hispanics to play Hispanics? "Trujillo" is a Latin name, and while an Afro-Latino actor could have been cast, why did they opt to cast a Jamaican-Canadian?

The oddest casting/waste of talent is Keith David as Deputy Chief Spencer. David is one of the greats, with a rich, distinctive voice. However, for reasons I can't even guess at director Brian Kirk opted to essentially relegate him to two scenes and give him few lines.

To be fair though, I might have been dozing off when David was on screen, but given how well I think of Keith David, I find that hard to believe.

21 Bridges indulges in a great amount of bloody violence to where one wonders if the filmmakers, including producers Joe and Anthony Russo, have an almost pathological hatred for police given how the film loved blowing them away. That's not also counting the number of civilians who end up getting caught in the crossfire from the moment Ray and Michael begin their break-in to the final cop-on-cop shootout.

21 Bridges isn't even good as an action film, let alone a film with any thought. With everyone looking and acting bored, it's no wonder I found it boring, or at least sleep-inducing.

DECISION: F

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Knives Out: A Review

KNIVES OUT

Knives Out is a throwback to an Agatha Christie-type whodunit with misdirection, a lavish setting and a cast of likely suspects all investigated by an eccentric but brilliant detective. I also understand it's meant as a comedy, but I don't remember laughing once.

The morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). With his throat slashed and a bloody dagger lying near him, the police believe it a suicide.

Is it? Southern-toned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired by a mystery figure to find out, with police detectives Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) most accommodating. The Thrombey family is full of suspects, each with his or her own reason to want to old man dead.

Could it be his son Walt (Michael Shannon), recently cut out from running his dad's publishing empire? What about Walt's brother-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), who fears Harlan will expose Richard's extramarital affair to his wife Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis)? Then there's Richard and Linda's wastrel son Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), who had a bitter argument with his grandfather the night of the party. There's also whacked-out Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of one of Harlan's sons who Harlan has discovered has been double-billing him for her daughter Meg's (Katherine Langford) schooling and pocketing the difference.

Image result for knives outMeg and Walt's son, the "alt-right troll dips**t literal Nazi" Jacob (Jaeden Martell) seem the least likely suspects, but suspects all the same. Then there's Harlan's loyal nurse, Latina immigrant Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). She doesn't appear to be a suspect, especially given she is incapable of lying, vomiting every time she tries. It's not until the shocked family discovers Harlan changed his will to give Marta everything that she goes from least to most likely.

Twists and turns abound, with Ana flashing back to the truth of Harlan's death but Ana's guilt appearing more and more likely. If she's guilty then the will is vacated and the family gets the inheritance, but Benoit Blanc eventually stumbles on little details that reveal who the real killer is among the greedy lot.

The most I can say about Knives Out is that it's...fine. I think too many of my brethren are overpraising Knives Out as the equal to Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express when, while logical up to a point, it isn't as good as it's been made out to be.

Writer/director Rian Johnson does well in keeping things flowing in a breezy manner, but I'm perplexed over who Benoit Blanc is seen as a "great detective" when he didn't do much detecting to begin with. A lot of information wasn't discovered by our oddball Raging Cajun, but by having the information fed via Ana's flashbacks. Maybe it was meant for us to know so much prior to Blanc knowing, but if so, he shows himself to be less brilliant and more lucky.

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I used to think Daniel Craig should do a comedy, and it certainly looked like he was having a whooping good time camping it up as our outlandishly Southern detective. Ransom's put-downs of Blanc as "CSI: KFC" and "Foghorn Leghorn" are quite accurate; as a side note, given his name of "Benoit Blanc", (which I think translates to "Benedict White"), along with his deliberately false Southern tones, my guess is that he's meant to be from Louisiana's Bayou country, but it's hard to say given this is played for laughs.

Having seen Craig in a comedy, I'm now of the mind he isn't funny when he's being deliberate on it. Then again, Knives Out is not meant to be totally serious, so perhaps I'm being too harsh.

The only thing on which Knives Out appears to be serious is on the issue of immigration. Marta has an undocumented mother and sister, which is the sword held over her by some of the Thrombey family members. The family can never remember which country she's from: they use Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay interchangeably. Time is wasted on discussions of Trump, which doesn't add anything and could have been removed to make Knives Out shorter. The only time the "politically active" Jacob really says anything political (or anything of note really) is when he angry calls Marta a "dirty anchor baby" when the family is shouting at her at the will reading.

As a side note, Martell is apparently made up to bear a striking similarity to Ben Shapiro, though the idea that an Orthodox Jew would be a literal Nazi or as Blanc calls him, "the Nazi boy masturbating in the bathroom" seems bizarre if Johnson wanted to make that connection. If Johnson really thinks Shapiro is a literal Nazi, that's his business. However, given that Jacob played such a small part in Knives Out and never said anything overtly political (apart from the 'anchor baby' thing), it seems a stretch to make a real connection between Jacob and Shapiro.

Moreover, while one can see political grandstanding, down to having the immigrant be the only good character versus the evil Anglo characters, to my mind it isn't enough to be outright propaganda.

I've no complaints about the performances, which were all quite good and appropriately played for laughs in a slightly but deliberately exaggerated manner. Still, while I thought it clever, Knives Out isn't as clever and nowhere near as funny as I was led to believe.

Knives Out has a nice, breezy manner and works as light entertainment, but I was not won over as much as others. Hugh'll never know who did it until the end. 

DECISION: C+

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Midway (2019): A Review


MIDWAY (2019)

At the surprisingly packed Midway screening I went to, the audience loved the film. The most I can say about this Midway is that I did not dislike it. It is not as horrible as perhaps some of its more vocal detractors have it, and it gets extra points for A) not being a remake of the 1976 version, and B) giving legendary director John Ford something of a cameo role.

However, Midway is far too long for the myriad of stories it is telling, as if it decided to slam in three war films into one bloated film.

After a pre-war scene between Japanese-speaking American intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and English-speaking Japanese naval Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsuchi Toyokawa), we hop to December 7, 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor. While not at the actual attack, cocky shot-hot ace fighter pilot  Dick Best (Ed Skrein) wants to take the fight to the Japs, especially after learning that his best friend was among those killed.

Post-Pearl, Layton is still filled with guilt about not being forceful enough in his warnings on the Japanese, while Yamamoto realizes that Japan has 'awakened a sleeping giant'. Layton, fortunately, has the ear of Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson). Best, for his part, while still fighting with Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), has the tepid confidence of Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey (Dennis Quaid). Their ship, the Enterprise, is the launching pad for the retaliatory Doolittle Raid, commanded by Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart).

Finally, comes the actual Battle of Midway, a bitter and brutal battle that takes many American and Japanese lives, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Image result for midway movieMy primary issue with Midway is its length, as so many of its problems flow from it. Whole films have been made about Pearl Harbor (From Here to Eternity, Pearl Harbor) and the Doolittle Raid (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) that it is almost astonishing that screenwriter Wes Tooke opted to try and fit in both those stories along with the actual Battle of Midway itself.

This in turn causes a lot of actual character development to be lost. The connection between Best and his best friend simply isn't there because as far as I remember, we never see them interact. Worse, we get in the extended Pearl Harbor sequence a young sailor who barely manages to survive thanks to Best's best friend only to never see or hear from him after he does his info dump.

Sadly, this 'blink and you miss them' bit happens again and again. Once the Doolittle raid takes place, we see a little of how Doolittle found himself in occupied China and then Midway forgets about him completely until we learn what happened to him in the credits. If you don't know who John Ford is, you might be puzzled to see this man with his movie camera. You may be even more puzzled when you don't see or hear from him after he orders his cameraman to "Keep rolling!" once the battle begins.

The film is frankly too sprawling, narratively unfocused. It gives us only the most cursory information on the figures (cocky, angry, worried) that one would not be blamed if they thought Best, McCluskey or Layton were fictional. The fact that they were real-life figures seems all the more astonishing, given we learned next to nothing about them and hardly knew who they were.

Midway is also saddled with some weak performances. It may not be Skrein's fault that he looks almost emaciated, but he is flat to almost boring as our hero. He's given something of a backstory with him having a wife and daughter, but Skrein is unable to make Best a human being. Granted, part of that is due to the script, but Skrein did not give a good performance.

Image result for midway movieSame goes for Wilson, a generally good actor, who had a perpetual look of worry throughout Midway. Evans, who is a usually reliable actor even in such enjoyable trifles as Dracula Untold, had nothing to do other than play mild antagonist to our cocky Dick Best.

As a side note, while that was his real name, "Dick Best" sounds almost comical. Granted, again it is his real name, but given that we learn nothing about Lieutenant Best as a person, the name "Dick Best" just sounds peculiar.

Quaid seemed to be chewing scenery with glee as Bull Halsey, and almost appeared to play him as if he were still playing the main character in The Intruder. Harrelson came out of this the best as Nimitz, who had a calm and rational manner even when presented with genuinely eccentric figures such as codebreaker Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown). Rochefort working in his slippers and robe does not face the Admiral, but like a lot of characters real and fictional, he just pops in and is gone once he's not needed.

You have essentially cameos from Darren Criss and Nick Jonas that almost end up more distracting than display acting abilities from either of them. One spends more time asking "Is that Darren Criss and Nick Jonas" than seeing their performances, and one wonders if they won't suddenly break out into a duet.

Midway does do more to humanize the Japanese aspect, particularly with a sympathetic portrait of Admiral Yamamoto as a thoughtful man aware of the dangers the Americans posed, a singular voice against the vainglory of the Japanese High Command. Whether this portrayal of the nobility of the enemy is a good thing or not is up to the viewer. Only he or she will decide whether seeing the cautious and meditative Yamamoto contemplate the horrors of war or a young Japanese naval officer begging to go down with the ship alongside his commander only to be rebuffed due to young men not joining the old in death paints a rosy image.

To be fair director Roland Emmerich does have strong battle sequences, particularly in the actual Battle of Midway, that should entertain or at least keep the viewer from falling completely asleep.

Ultimately while not a horrible film, Midway would have done better to focus on Midway itself instead of trying to play at film cliches and throw in so much. A narrower focus to allow us to care and know about the real-life figures would have done Midway a world of good.

DECISION: C-

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Jojo Rabbit: A Review

JOJO RABBIT

Can the horrors of Nazism make for a riotous comedy? It is possible to have a lot of laughs at this evil force's expense: The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be and the whole Springtime for Hitler from The Producers number are hilarious and more important, witty. Jojo Rabbit, based on the novel Caging Skies, aims for laughs amidst the dying Third Reich. For me, it struck me as a film where everyone "knows" they are funny, but they were so funny that I forgot to laugh.

Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old living with his mother Ruthie (Scarlett Johansson) in an unnamed German town. He is a proud but clumsy Hitler Youth member, with only two friends: one real and one imagined. His real friend is Yorki (Archie Yates), a fatter, clumsier version of Johannes. His imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler himself (writer/director Taika Waititi), though granted a dumber and sillier version of The Fuhrer.

Unable to kill a rabbit at the Hitler Youth camp run by the barely interested Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Johannes earns the derisive nickname "Jojo Rabbit", but with some encouragement from his Hitler he manages to try and throw a grenade...and fails disastrously, leaving him with scars and a limp. While recuperating, Rosie forces Klenzendorft to give Jojo odd jobs in town.

Image result for jojo rabbitArriving home early, Jojo makes a shocking discovery: Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl hiding in his home. This creates a crisis for Jojo, for if he should tell the authorities Rosie will be punished, but he as a good Nazi can't have Jews living in his home, let alone the room of his late sister Inge. So, with some encouragement from our dear Leader, Jojo sets about to learn the Jews' great secrets and make a 'how-to' book.

Unfortunately for Jojo, he soon starts seeing Elsa as a human being, and even developing a touch of puppy love for our Jewess. What to do, what to do? As the Reich comes to its inglorious end, Jojo loses some people, real and imagined, but gains the ability to be heroes, if just for one day, in German.

As I watched Jojo Rabbit, I could not shake the idea that this is what a Wes Anderson film on Nazism would look like. That is neither a compliment or insult, just a statement of fact. Jojo Rabbit doubled, sometimes tripled down on the exaggerated tone, as if making things more overt and over-the-top would make it hilarious. It certainly did its best to mix hilarity with heartfeltness.

Pity I just could not go with it.

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Jojo Rabbit really did strike me as a movie where everyone in front of and behind the camera was playing things to the highest level of camp, with the exception of Davis and especially McKenzie, who appears to be the only one to play things straight. It was not so much that I was put off by it all as it was that Jojo Rabbit really was plucking at low-hanging fruit, going for the easiest sight gags without much if any wit. The tonal imbalance between high camp and surprisingly serious drama shifted so often that for me, I could never settle on what the film wanted to be.

For a comedy, I don't think I laughed once, maybe smiled or chuckled, but not laughed. Yes, one can mock Hitler and the entire insidious Nazi thinking, but here my sense is that Jojo Rabbit is so wild in tonal shifts one can't find any sense to it.

I'm sure Waititi thought it would be hilarious to show that the "German shepherds" brought by Klenzendorf's lackey (and though never overtly mentioned, more than likely his lover) Finkel (Alfie Allen) were male sheepherders versus actual dogs. I figure many audiences found it comedic genius. I did not.

Image result for jojo rabbitTo be fair, I thought the best parts in Jojo Rabbit was the interplay between Jojo and Yorki, putting a surprisingly innocent take on the horrors they saw. As Yorki relates how he and others found some Jews who were shot, he states matter-of-factly, "I don't see what the big deal is. They look perfectly human to me". Later, as the Third Reich dies all around them, Yorki replies to Jojo's admission that he still has his Jew, "There are more important things to worry about".

I wasn't so much puzzled as I was almost slightly irritated by the overt camp nature of Jojo Rabbit, such as when we saw the constant "Heil Hitler" saluting the Gestapo sent to investigate the Betzler home kept saying. Again, I know what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go, but I just could not go along with it.

As Davis and McKenzie played things the straightest, I ended up thinking they gave the best performances, the latter more so. Davis, to be honest, was almost too cute and endearing to be what his mother claims him to be: a fanatical Nazi. He struck me less a fanatic and more of an idiot. Johansson too was best when playing things straight than camping it up for all its worth. Rockwell sold me on his wild, over-the-top Klenzendorf, knowing the end is nigh but not really caring. Wilson continues to be unfunny in anything she does.

As for Waititi's comical Fuhrer, I got lost in another one of my pesky questions of logic. Throughout the film, Hitler keeps offering Jojo cigarettes, but all I could do was wonder why, for someone who was such a Hitler super-fan as Jojo was, how he didn't know that Hitler loathed smoking or was a vegetarian.

For me, Jojo Rabbit was a bit too flippant for my tastes. Somehow, perhaps if things had been played more straight we might have had a better film. Granted, I know that this is a stupid child's idea of Hitler and Nazi Germany and that it is all meant to be exaggerated. Still, I just could not go along with it. 

DECISION: C-

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Little Women Retrospective: The Conclusions

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LITTLE WOMEN RETROSPECTIVE: 
THE CONCLUSIONS

I have never read Little Women, partially because it is still primarily marketed as the female equivalent of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn, something "for girls" in the same way Tom & Huck are "for boys". In a world where men and women appear to be now at constant loggerheads, Little Women, in particular the 2019 adaptation, finds itself in the midst of yet another culture war when to my knowledge the 1933, 1949, even the 1994 versions were not. Men are berated for not rushing to see the film and/or for not nominating it for major awards, yet simultaneously berated for seeing the film and not loving it as the second coming.

This war, with social justice warriors taking arms against those who have little to no interest in the various adventures of the March sisters, really to my mind is a disservice to the exceptional series of films and television adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's novel.

It all seems so strange to me, this constant battle of the sexes. In a time where the role of women in front and behind the camera has taken on new urgency Little Women 2019 has become a focal point of this war, as if the (male) viewer must prefer it over say a more male-centric film like Ford v Ferrari to justify his very existence. Women are free to like or even love Ford v Ferrari and men are free to like or even love Little Women, but I do not believe not liking or loving either reflects misandry or misogyny on a viewer's part. It simply means, to me, that men and women are different, enjoy different things and have different tastes. Not better, but different.

Most, but not all, women enjoy shopping. Most, but not all, men do not. Most, but not all, women could spend hours browsing through items without buying anything. Most, but not all, men would go to a store, pick out what they need, and then get out. Men and women are equal, but we are not the same. To say otherwise seems to me absurd. This applies to Little Women.

I have yet to see a bad adaptation of Alcott's novel. However, to say that I enjoyed Ford v Ferrari more than Little Women does not make me a male chauvinist pig.

It distresses me that this newest fight in gender has clouded both Little Women 2019 and Little Women in general. As I wrap up my Little Women Retrospective, I find that this story of the bonds of sisters through the triumphs and tragedies of life still holds up, still says something about the importance of family and being true to yourself. Jo March is a heroine for the ages, and there is a reason why filmmakers keep revisiting this story.

It is because it still holds up. Little Women, at least based on the adaptations, is a deceptively simple story about the lives of women with few if any men. I have liked each of the five adaptations I have seen: the 1933 George Cukor film, the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy remake, the 1978 miniseries, the 1994 Gillian Anderson version and the 2019 Greta Gerwig version. Not liking any or all does not make one a sexist, but refusing to watch any or all because it is about women in Civil War-era costumes does make me wonder why one would object. This person would really lose out on some wonderful films.

And now, it is time for comparisons and conclusions.

BEST PROFESSOR BHAER


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Paul Lukas (1933)
Gabriel Byrnes (1994)
Rossano Brazzi (1949)
Louis Garrel (2019)
William Shatner (1978)

I understand many people have a dislike for Professor Bhaer. Alcott had to create him in Part II of Little Women because so many readers wanted Jo to marry, preferably Laurie, but Alcott wanted Jo to remain unmarried as she herself had. Giving in to pressure, she created this older German intellectual to placate her "backward" readers.

As a side note, it's curious that in every version I have seen, Bhaer is played by non-Americans: Hungarian (Lukas), Italian (Brazzi), Canadian (Shatner), Irish (Byrne) and French (Garrel). It seems proper to cast a non-American for the most non-American character in this all-American story.

As disliked as Bhaer may have been, even by Alcott herself, Lukas' version is probably the best because it is the most believable. Lukas makes Bhaer a perfect mix of shy, almost bumbling but strong intellectual. While Alcott and some Little Women fans may have a dislike for Bhaer, I think perhaps subconsciously realized that if Jo was to marry, she would marry someone who stimulated her mind more than her body. Lukas' Bhaer was that: an intellectual equal whom she could share great thoughts and ideas with. Lukas has a sweet manner to his Bhaer but also has the intellectual prowess to keep Jo's attention. Their 13-year-age difference does not make their romance that implausible.

Byrne comes closest to Lukas in being Jo's equal, able to discuss transcendentalism and suffrage on equal terms. One could see Byrnes' Bhaer being that intellectual whom Jo can not only match wits with but probably best. Their twenty-one-year age gap, however, does look more curious to say the least; then there's the Dracula-by-way-of-Ireland accent Bhaer adopts. He sounds funny, especially compared to Lukas' natural accent. Byrnes' first language is English, Lukas' wasn't. Therefore, Lukas sounds more natural as a foreigner than Byrnes does.

Brazzi and Garrel are hampered by a variety of factors. Both are frankly too pretty to be believed as somewhat serious, almost dour intellectuals. Moreover, the age and language factors also downgrade them. Brazzi is far too young to be thought of as "the older man": in fact, he was actually a year younger than June Allyson (1949's Jo). He's also quite Italian, so seeing him as this German is bizarre.

While Garrel is eleven years older than Saoirse Ronan (2019's Jo), they don't look as if they are that separate. Garrel is also quite gorgeous, so seeing him as the somber intellectual forever hunched over a tome seems a stretch too. Garrel is lower than Brazzi though in that he plays virtually no part in Gerwig's adaptation. He's almost an afterthought, and taken as something of a joke. That might be how Alcott and Gerwig see him, but it does the adaptation no favors.

Shatner was the worst because his "German" accent was just terrible. He seemed less absent-minded and more incoherent. It was probably the worst performance in the entire Retrospective, and certainly in the 1978 miniseries.

BEST LAURIE

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Peter Lawford (1949)
Christian Bale (1994)
Richard Gilliland (1978)
Timothee Chalamet (2019)
Douglas Montgomery (1933)

It surprises me to find Peter Lawford as the best anything given that I find him to be a weak actor, more famous for being connected to the Kennedys and the Rat Pack than for any great cinematic performance. That being said, he barely edges out Christian Bale because his Laurie seemed to be genuinely in love with Jo and moreover made his romance with Amy plausible.

Perhaps Alcott does make Laurie a wastrel when he re-encounters Amy in Europe, boozing and broading his way across the Continent to forget Jo. That is how Bale and Chalamet play him, but I prefer Laurie to be a generally sweet boy. Here is where Lawford excels, as someone who is genuine pals with Jo, not hostile to her aspirations but still not part of them.

The "I'm the sad drunk" bit pushes Bale down slightly, but his Laurie was actually quite endearing, showing a kinder, gentler side to our sometimes intense actor. It's a shame Richard Gilliland did not become a major star, for his Laurie was quite nice and well-acted. He had the benefit of beautiful, intense blue eyes, but I found his performance quite charming.

Chalamet has a few strikes against him. One: he's still quite pretty, almost too pretty to think of himself as this somewhat lonely young man. Two: his version is too contemporary, as if he is playing a 2019 person versus an 1860 person. By that I mean his Laurie does not strike me as a man of his time but of our time, and thus I could not really accept him as a Civil War-era young man. His and Jo's "dance" in particular strikes me as something today's youth would do, not the youth of the story's time period. Of course, the young are always young no matter when they live in history, but still something about Chalamet's performance still makes me think he did not become Laurie but an impostor. Three: his was a weak performance overall. I never believed he was in love with Jo and to be frank, he seemed more in love with Amy from the get-go than anything else. His ability to float freely from one March sister to another was downright creepy: at one point he seemed to flirt with Meg!

Douglas was such a wet blanket I just pretty much forgot about him.

BEST AUNT MARCH

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Greer Garson (1978)
Edna May Oliver (1933)
Meryl Streep (2019)
Lucille Watson (1949)
Mary Wickes (1994)

In a surprise upset the best imperious Aunt March goes to the 1978 television miniseries in Greer Garson's penultimate appearance. I put her as the best because while Aunt March can be difficult, cantankerous and most definitely unpleasant, Garson also gave her both a touch of class and even grace.

She could be rude and difficult, but she also showed a genuine heart and logic in her manner. In the miniseries, Meg's wedding takes place on the same day the family learns the Civil War is over. Here, this grande dame of the March family makes a toast not just to the happy couple but to the peace that will finally come to the weary nation. It's a beautiful moment and a fine piece of acting.

Oliver and Streep are really interchangeable, but I put Oliver slightly ahead because she seems more frightening and less actory than Streep, who dives into her imperious Aunt March with gusto. It's almost as if Oliver was Aunt March and Streep was acting as Aunt March, a major difference.

Watson and Wickes struck me as more comical than cantankerous in their Aunt March. Wickes however had the negative of being almost too nice in her interpretation. She never struck me as being the at times horrid figure Aunt March should have been. I think Wickes was a fine actress and she wasn't bad in Little Women. She was just too pleasant to be thought of as Jo's minor antagonist.

BEST MARMEE

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Susan Sarandon (1994)
Mary Astor (1949)
Laura Dern (2019)
Dorothy Maguire (1978)
Spring Byington (1933)

Out of all the embodiments of Mrs. March, loving and wise matriarch of the March family, I do not think we will ever have a better or more definitive interpretation than that of Susan Sarandon as the beloved Marmee. What makes Sarandon's version so brilliant is that she perfectly balanced the loving aspect of Marmee with what can be called the woke mind of Marmee. Sarandon's Marmee was tender, caring, and yes, motherly: protective of her daughters and family, dispensing wisdom and love.

However, unlike previous Marmees and 2019's more openly feminist version, Sarandon's Marmee was also very progressive and quite forward thinking. She expressed the-then shocking view that women and men were equal in all things, something that none of the other versions ever did. However, there was never a sense of scolding, lecturing or moral superiority in her thinking. Sarandon's Marmee just believed it because it was true, not passing judgment on anyone but knowing that her daughters were just as worthy of pursuing their own ideas as the boys they encountered.

In short, Susan Sarandon's Marmee balanced femininity with feminism, simultaneously strong and non-threatening. I think it a beautiful balance and a pitch-perfect performance.

Astor has the benefit of having a long career playing "the perfect mother" (salacious sex scandal notwithstanding). She has that traditional portrayal of Marmee as loving and protective, so she gets a slight edge over Dern. Dern's version has that loving and protective element while also being more progressive that Sarandon has, but sometimes I could not shake the idea that this Marmee was angrier, more hostile towards the world. Perhaps that is how the book is, but by now I think we've grown so accustomed to Marmee as a warm, loving figure that seeing her rage against the United States seems almost un-American.

Maguire has the disadvantage of being little remembered, though from what I do remember it was not a bad take on it. Byington sadly seemed to be lost in the shuffle and to my seemed to have little to do with Little Women.

BEST BETH MARCH

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Margaret O'Brien (1949)
Clare Danes (1994)
Eve Plumb (1978)
Jean Parker (1933)
Eliza Scanlen (2019)

I confess to sometimes not remembering the birth order of the March sisters, so forgive me if I have this wrong, but I think it's from youngest to oldest Beth, Meg, Amy and Jo. Beth, the youngest, is the one doomed to die. Out of all the versions, no one will ever top dear little Margaret O'Brien.

O'Brien is perhaps the best child actress to ever cry on film. She made weeping so believable and heartbreaking. Her last scene with June Allyson as Beth comforts Jo rather than vice versa is not just a beautiful piece of acting but just so heartbreaking and moving. You'd have to be inhuman not to be moved by O'Brien's performance.

I doubt anyone could come close to Margaret O'Brien in terms of acting, especially given that she is the youngest actor in the entire Little Women repertoire. However, I'm going to give the slight edge to Danes in that she is better-remembered than the others save O'Brien. Moreover, Danes' performance is also quite moving and she has the "plus" of being the first to die on-screen. Plumb, for all the mockery her "Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!" has endured, showed that she had genuine acting abilities as Beth. It's just a shame her Brady Bunch work overtook her skills.

I found Parker quite gentle and moving, though sadly overshadowed by both other Beths and her other costars. I really do not remember Scanlen in Little Women, and the non-linear take did not help make that connection.

BEST MEG MARCH

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Janet Leigh (1949)
Emma Watson (2019)
Trini Alvarado (1994)
Meredith Baxter-Birney (1978)
Frances Dee (1933)

Another surprise. I don't think most people remember Janet Leigh was in Little Women, but out of all the Meg Marches, I think she is the one that won me over the most. Her romance with Laurie's tutor Mr. Brook seemed to me the most realistic and well-acted, and she played the most sensible March sister quite well.

Watson and Alvarado were neck and neck, but I'm giving edge to Watson due to a variety of factors. First, she had to adopt an American accent versus the American Alvarado. Two, Watson to my mind had more to do in Little Women than Alvarado. It's almost as if the non-linear structure helped her performance. Alvarado gave a fine performance and should be complimented, but Watson won me over.

Baxter-Birney did quite well too, but she didn't do as well as Watson or Alvarado. As for Dee, while I think she did well she pales compared to the others.

BEST AMY MARCH

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Elizabeth Taylor (1949)
Florence Pugh (2019)
Joan Bennett (1933)
Kirsten Dunst & Samantha Mathis (1994)
Ann Dusenberry (1978)

Amy March, our spoiled yet endearing March sister, has had a good number of good actresses play her. Out of all of them though, I found one that simply towered over the others.

Little Women proved plainly and clearly that Elizabeth Taylor could play comedy and play it quite well. In her performance, she was charming and sweet, endearing especially when attempting to play a sophisticated lady. In her sweet selfishness, in her malapropisms and manner, Taylor made Amy a comical yet also fiercely loving and protective sister. While mostly played for laughs, Taylor could also move you.

Pugh has a more central role in her version of Little Women to where it's almost Amy's story versus Jo's. She really does an exceptional job as this woman who sees her limitations due to both her talent (or lack thereof) and her gender. She does what few versions have been able to do: make the Amy/Laurie romance real.

Bennett has the benefit of out-acting Dunst and Mathis, who had to essentially tag-team their adaption. The 1994 version is the only version to have two actresses play one character in different ages, and I can't shake the idea that this was a mistake. It's not that Dunst and/or Mathis gave bad performances: they didn't. It's just that they essentially split the baby and thus makes it hard to judge against the others.

Dusenberry is completely forgettable. I can't even remember what she looks like.

BEST JO MARCH

Image result for katharine hepburn little women

Katharine Hepburn (1933)
Wynona Ryder (1994)
Saoirse Ronan (2019)
June Allyson (1949)
Susan Dey (1978)

This really is an embarrassment of riches, as some really fine actresses have played one of the greatest female characters in literature. How to choose among the wide variety of Jo Marches? It really is a tough decision, at least for the top three contenders, each of which alone is really a remarkable, rich performance worthy of praise and respect.

After some thought, my mind goes to Katharine Hepburn as the definitive Jo. Hepburn seems tailor-made for this tomboy, feisty, independent woman with literary aspirations. Hepburn comes alive as Jo: her ambitions, her love for her sisters, her desires to be free and live her life. I think Katharine Hepburn's performance in Little Women is one of the finest of her career.

Ryder comes so achingly close to Hepburn, no easy feat. She makes Jo a true heroine for all seasons, bringing that intellectual pursuit and thirst more to the forefront than all the others save probably Hepburn. She is a true creative force and really one of my favorite Ryder performances.

Ronan is in the middle only due to what I consider the superiority of both Hepburn and Ryder in the role. Also, they have the benefit of time where both of them have been seen as the definitive Jo March. Perhaps in the course of time Ronan too will be held as a definitive Jo March, but right now it is too soon.

Allyson is to my mind the worst Jo March in a film adaptation. She does not have the spark of that tomboy or that intellectual. Moreover, her foghorn voice and the fact that she was 33 trying to pass herself off as maybe 16 push her down. Even so, Allyson is better than Dey, who is the worst Jo March ever. Dey's Jo is so blank in the role. Also, she struck me as miscast, almost too beautiful to be this rambunctious tomboy and writer. A writer can be beautiful, but Dey seemed so removed from the role.


BEST VERSION


1933
1994
1949
2019
1978

As I look at the wide variety of Little Women adaptations, I see that there really isn't a bad adaptation. However, to my mind, one really dominates all the others.

The 1933 adaptation is lifted immensely by two factors: Katharine Hepburn and director George Cukor. As I look at my Retrospective, I find that the 1949 version is probably the best acted save for the roles of Jo, Marmee and Aunt March. However, because Hepburn's version is so strong compared to the others and because Cukor's direction is so strong, it gets my vote for the Best Little Women adaptation.

Coming right on its heels is the 1994 Gillian Anderson version, the first directed, written and produced by women. The 1994 version is so well-crafted, simultaneously updating the story to reflect the feminist overtones in the story while still having the more traditional, dare I say wholesome aspects that generations of readers and viewers have grown accustomed to. With the to my mind definitive Marmee and the closest rival to Hepburn in terms of Jo in Winona Ryder's performance, the 1994 Little Women is both conservative and progressive.

The 1949 version overtakes the 2019 version for two reasons. One: it has better performances in what I think are the best Amy, Meg, Beth and Laurie of all the versions. Two, it is older and thus has the benefit of time. It is still too early to declare the 2019 Little Women the best version, let alone the definitive one.

I also was highly troubled by the non-linear structure of the 2019 version. Perhaps those who have never seen any of the versions would not find it a bridge too far, though given the cultural hold the 1994 version has it boggles the mind that those who went to see the 2019 adaptation knew nothing of the story, let alone the 1994 version that stayed within the structure of its predecessors. 

1978, while having good elements and the best Aunt March in Greer Garson, is probably the "worst" due to having the weakest Jo March and Professor Bhaer. The former at times looks catatonic and the latter mostly overacts to embarrassing levels.

I think the chances of getting another adaptation of Little Women within my lifetime are high. I wish whoever makes it success, but he or she should know they have a lot of competition and history to go up against.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Review

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

The murders of Sharon Tate along with Steve Parent, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger (followed the next night by the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca) are among the most gruesome and monstrous acts committed in that glitzy world known as Hollywood. It is a very sensitive subject, one that does not open itself up to humor. Quentin Tarantino, however, did not make a film about this evil work but instead a film that makes an alternate history and paints a portrait of an industry and world in flux. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not only a shrewd portrait of careers in crisis but probably the most respectful cinematic portrait ever made of Tate, one of the most tragic figures in entertainment history.

Television star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is finding himself at the tail end of his career after his Western show Bounty Law is cancelled. His more casual stuntman/gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) pretty much takes things as they come, but Dalton is forever anxious about his career. Surviving on guest spots as 'the heavy', Dalton resists making Spaghetti Westerns in Italy and keeps plugging away at a television comeback. Booth for his part seems pretty happy-go-lucky, curious considering most people in the entertainment industry are convinced he murdered his wife.

Next door to Dalton is hot Polish director Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). She lives life and loves life: going out with her friends such as her former flame Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsh) and watching herself in the spy spoof The Wrecking Crew starring Dean Martin.

Image result for once upon a time in hollywoodCliff begins a flirtation with a pretty young thing named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a hippie who lives out on a former Western movie ranch with others. Cliff, who like Dalton has no patience for hippies, is concerned for the ranch's owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern), whom he somewhat knows from his time on Bounty Law. As Dalton attempts his comeback on Lancer, a pilot where he'll play the antagonist, Cliff gives the hippies a once-over.

Moving six months later, Rick Dalton has finally agreed to make a Spaghetti Western, ending up making two and a spy spoof and also marrying an Italian starlet. Despite his newly found resurgence, he cannot afford Cliff's services, so they opt to leave as friends and celebrate with a night out. Coincidentally, Tate, now eight months pregnant, also goes out with her friends, while members of Charles Manson's "family" begin heading out to kill whoever lives at a certain address, unaware that it is now Tate and Polanski who live there.

Here is the twist: due to odd circumstances the killers opt to kill Rick Dalton after an irate and intoxicated Dalton orders them off the private street, rationalizing the murders for 'teaching them to kill' via shows like Bounty Law. Cliff has taken his dog on a walk and is not only drunk but high from an acid-laced cigarette he bought from Pussycat earlier but which he is trying out now. As the three killers storm the Dalton home, a high and slightly out-of-it Booth recognizes them and manages to kill two of them despite being injured himself. The third killer, herself heavily injured and crazed, bursts out onto the pool area, startling an oblivious Dalton. He dispatches this killer in a surprising way.

The commotion and police finally attract the attention of his neighbors, who have been having a private party. An alarmed Tate, hearing Dalton's experience via intercom, invites the still shaken Dalton inside her home, surviving to live another day.

Image result for once upon a time in hollywood margot robbieAs I think on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I find that this is something I did not expect: a Quentin Tarantino film with a genuine heart and compassion for the characters, in particular Sharon Tate. The Tate seen here is a wonderful woman: vivacious, sweet and caring.

I understand many people have been critical of Tarantino due to Margot Robbie having few lines or being secondary in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. To my mind, I think they wildly misjudge both the film and its portrait of Tate.

As played by Robbie and written by Tarantino, Sharon Tate is about the only good person in the film industry: not neurotic as Dalton or casual as Booth or poisoned like the Manson cult. I found both the performance and interpretation of Tate to be highly respectful and loving. Take her longest sequence, when she almost impulsively stops at a theater playing The Wrecking Crew.

When she sweet-talks her way into going inside without paying the seventy-five cent ticket cost she isn't doing it as an act of a diva. Instead, both here and when she sees herself on screen, it's an act of amazement more than arrogance. We see in Tarantino's directing and Robbie's performance that Sharon Tate is amazed to find herself up on the screen, as if it is a wonderful dream. She delights in audiences finding her funny in the comedy. In Robbie's performance, we see Sharon Tate as someone thoroughly enraptured by the joy she brings others, delighted, perhaps shocked that people would respond that way to her.

It is a beautiful performance so deftly directed, and I genuinely don't understand why there are people who think it's in any way disrespectful of Tate's memory or Robbie's talent.

Image result for once upon a time in hollywood bruce lee
Leonardo DiCaprio gives an absolutely wonderful performance, or really performances. He not only has to play 'Rick Dalton', anxious actor, but also the various characters he has to play when on Bounty Law or doing the various guest star appearances to keep his career going. While his accent sounded too much like he was trying for The Aviator II: Howard Hughes' Revenge, we see in his performance a man who does attempt to fight against the dying of the light. In particular we see this when he reads a novel that he realizes comes too close to home with regards his own life.

Brad Pitt, looking quite good at 56, has a nice breezy, almost laid-back manner to his Cliff. This is a man who takes things as they come, satisfied with what he has despite having little. He does not suffer fools gladly, but his inner confidence allows him to take the succeeding generation on and come out on top.

In a certain way, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is almost intentional or not a rebuke to both the glorification of hippie culture and repudiation of "toxic masculinity". Granted, the Manson cult is the most extreme example of hippies, but hippies as a whole came across as vapid and bullying. When they are storming into Dalton's home to "do the Devil's business", they have a strange sense of entitlement, particularly as they justify their acts because of what they've seen on television.

Is Tarantino making a dig at those who blame acts of violence on violent films, television and video games?

Moreover, Dalton and Booth, our heroes, are not men prone to be in touch with their feelings. They drink, they smoke, they have contempt for hippies and make no apologies for hitting them hard and violently. I figure as men who fought or at least knew of war (Booth, it is mentioned, is a veteran), they would have little to no patience with the peace-and-love ethos of those taking over. While Booth may be casual, even he won't sleep with someone underage and certainly won't allow a younger man to talk back to him.

My only real gripe would be in how Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) came across: as an arrogant, pompous blowhard. It's no slam on Moh or Tarantino, but something about this version of Lee was present didn't sit right with me. Then again, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not meant to be taken seriously and is openly revisionist history. Then there's Tarantino's foot fetish, which is there at least twice where feet were prominently displayed.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to Hollywood, one where actors bond with their stuntmen and young hopefuls come with stars in their eyes. It's a fantasy about a fantasy world, one that may never have genuinely existed. With top-notch performances, a well-crafted screenplay and excellent production design even if a bit long, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an excellent film. It also gives Sharon Tate a second chance while respecting her memory.

1943-1969

DECISION: B+ 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Atlantic City: A Review

ATLANTIC CITY

Atlantic City balances between the sleazy, tawdry elements of violence and crime and the tragedy of those few innocent caught between those forces. Quiet, almost meditative, Atlantic City is a portrait of a world in transition, ostensibly for good but which like the glitzy casinos really have a calculated heart underneath the lights.

Trouble comes to Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon), starting a new life as a waitress but who is studying to be a card dealer in the upcoming casinos on the Atlantic City boardwalk. That trouble comes in the form of her estranged husband Dave (Robert Joy), who ran off with her hippie-drippy sister Chrissie (Hollis McLauren), pregnant with his child.

Dave Matthews is here to sell some cocaine he stole in Philadelphia, which Sally knows nothing of. She wants them out, but they're family. Dave befriends Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aging former mobster who lives in Sally's building. He agrees to sell some of the cocaine to an ongoing card game, as Dave is too conspicuous. Dave, however, is killed by the Philly mobsters and now they are after both Lou and Sally.

Despite caring for and perhaps caring about Grace (Karen Reid), a fellow mobster's widow, Sally has been Lou's obscure object of desire. Despite their age difference, Lou's kind and tender manner win Sally over and they share an intimate moment. Unfortunately, Dave is more trouble dead than alive, as the mobsters continue their brutal harassment of them, and Sally is fired from the casino as well as dropped from the card dealer class due to Dave's criminal past.

While Chrissie bonds with Grace, Lou takes matters into his own hands in a final confrontation with the killers. Vague dreams emerge for Lou and Sally, with Lou thrilled to finally rise to being the mobster he's always wanted to be. Still, they must take separate roads on their own way to redemption.

Image result for atlantic city movieThe symbolism Atlantic City has between the end of one world and beginning of another is hard to miss. The dilapidation of the city itself matches the crumbling world these figures live in. As the city appears to rebuild itself, the hope and optimism plugged by the leadership is countered by the characters own sense of despair.

Perhaps the best example of the dichotomy in Atlantic City is when Sally is brought in to identify Dave Matthews' body. As she tries to call his parents in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Robert Goulet in a cameo is singing the optimistic Atlantic City, My Old Friend. He even seems to be flirting with her, causing her more anxiety.

Atlantic City has exceptional performances from the two leads. In a certain way, Burt Lancaster plays against type as Lou. He isn't really a tough guy, even with his claims of being a cohort of gangsters like Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Seigel. He may have been a gangster, but we see that Lou really is putting up a front, a man who finds it easier to play gangster than actually be one. Lancaster's performance explores that idea of 'toxic masculinity' long before it was even a term.

As he silently and painfully does nothing while gangsters rough up Sally, we see the desire to do something but also his fear, his inability to live up to his ideas. He takes charge of things for Sally, and even manages to make her, his obscure object of desire, his own, but Lou is also surprisingly tender. Seeing him almost with childish glee celebrate his first killings is both endearing and sad.

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As they leave the scene in their flight, Lou tells Sally, "I protected you," and we see the tragedy of it all. He's finally lived up to the image he's had of himself, but it gains him nothing.

Sarandon too excels as Sally, the only genuinely sane and good person in the film. She too yearns to 'be someone', longing for a touch of class with dreams of being the first female card dealer in Monte Carlo's fabled casino. Sarandon makes Sally a survivor and fighter, one who fights for herself despite how often even the most benevolent of men can take advantage of her. Sally's yearnings for respectability are even when she appears to be erotic: her daily habit of washing herself with lemons and lathering her body with it, we learn later, are a way to get the fish smell off of her.

There is also fine work from Joy as Dave Matthews, the curse on everyone he meets, Reid as the former Betty Grable lookalike contestant and mob widow now reduced to having only Lou and her spoiled dog for company. Granted, McLaren's Chrissie struck me as the height of stupid (no sane woman runs off with her sister's husband and thinks it part of the Universe's grand plans) but to her credit I didn't end up hating her, seeing her as more naive than malicious.

Louis Malle captures that world of fading and faded glory attempting to build itself up again softly and delicately.       

Atlantic City is a sad, somber film, one that reveals the genuine sadness of a dying world even as it appears to be resurrecting.

DECISION: B+

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Kitchen (2019): A Review


THE KITCHEN

I was not won over by last year's Widows, finding it among the most excessively overpraised film of 2018. Why people essentially opted to do a variation of Widows with The Kitchen is really anyone's guess; however, I would at least say that for all the faults Widows is better than The Kitchen, but that isn't saying much for either film.

Hell's Kitchen, 1978. Three different wives do what they can with three different types of husbands. Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy) is relatively content in her marriage to Jimmy (Brian d'Arcy James). Ruby O'Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) is a variation of the 'black Irish' after marrying the hot-tempered Kevin (James Badge Dale) and enduring her mother-in-law Helen (Margo Martindale). Quiet Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) is abused by Rob (Jeremy Bobb).

The three Irish mobsters put the squeeze on their neighborhood until arrested by FBI Agents Silvers (Common) and Martinez (E.J. Bonilla). The Irish mob, now led by Little Jackie (Myk Watford), promises the women they'll be taken care of while their husbands are up the river, but he's a skinflint. With nothing to lose, the three essentially opt to undercut Little Jackie by running their own protection racket, which they are successful at.

Image result for the kitchen movieNow with a brewing war between the wives and Little Jackie's crew, the women now start taking over, helped by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), an ex-veteran/hitman who becomes not just their Guy Friday but Claire's lover. As they gain power they also gain the attention and patronage of Italian mobster Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp).

Coretti may not be good, as he got the husbands out early through his influence, putting the three women's hold over Hell's Kitchen in doubt. However, these three resourceful ladies along with Gabriel can handle things, even if it involves more murders, the death of one of them and a few more twists and turns.

The true tragedy in The Kitchen is that everyone really was trying for serious drama. I have to give them credit for at least doing their best to make this a genuine mob story in The Irishman mold. However, try as they might everyone involved could not make it work.

Perhaps it is because McCarthy and Haddish are best known as comediennes, but I imagine more than a few people probably thought The Kitchen was going to be either a comedy or maybe a spoof of gangster films. It is not their fault that the film sometimes played like a spoof.

Image result for the kitchen movieI think it is because The Kitchen, for all its calls at somberness, never makes anyone believe these particular women even associate with each other, let alone run a criminal empire together. We see a montage of them hitting up a disco and raking in the dough, but Kathy, Ruby and Claire never really appear to be interested in things or worse, enjoying things.

It isn't implausible that the women not only take over a protection racket but are better than the men, but at times things look odd. Of particular note is when Ruby and Kathy attempt to put the squeeze on a Hasidic jeweler to let the Irish be doing the construction job. As directed by writer Andrea Berloff from the DC Vertigo comic book, there is almost an undertone of accidental humor, as if the actors weren't sure if they were meant to play things for laughs or seriously.

Somehow, they opted to try for a little bit of both, making things if not uncomfortable at least odd.

Again, they tried, in particular Haddish as the tough, power-mad tyrannical Ruby, and to her credit she showed that with a good script and director she might do more than broad comedies like Night School (which to be fair I enjoyed more than The Kitchen). It just didn't work. Same for McCarthy, who also tried but who was let down more by the script than by anything else. Near the end, she has to decide Jimmy's ultimate fate, and what is meant to be moving, powerful and impactful ends up feeling detached, almost boring.

Moss had what was meant to be the deepest role but again I felt nothing for her or her story. The whole film felt very detached, boring, removed from everything.

I think it is because The Kitchen felt unorganized, as if we were watching a "The Best Of" or "Highlights From" a television series without giving us the full story. For example, we are meant to think of Martindale's Helen as this Irish Mob Queen Mother, but she came across as funny and exaggerated in her manner. When she meets what is meant as a grisly end, I found it more funny than shocking.

It's curious that just as Widows was sold as a female empowerment film, The Kitchen too tried for that but instead gave the best part to a man. Domnhall Gleeson was almost unrecognizable as this tough yet surprisingly gentle Irish-American mobster. While watching I thought it was him but could not believe how well he acted in the film.

The Kitchen is a good stab at a mobster story from a unique perspective, but it just didn't work. 

DECISION: D-

Monday, January 6, 2020

Ad Astra: A Review

AD ASTRA

My late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. sometimes got on my case whenever I would refer to a particular film as 'pretentious'. Perhaps if he still lived, he would concede that Ad Astra is indeed 'pretentious'. Mistaking moroseness for meditative, Ad Astra has the positives of a lush score and some extraordinary visuals that I figure on a large screen are breathtaking. However, the film as a whole wallows in its own self-importance.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) whispers and monologues of his own misery which he keeps in check under a cold, remote manner. The son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), he is sent on a top-secret mission after "The Surge", a massive power surge/outage that has wrecked life on Earth. The military believes that "The Surge" was the result of the Lima Project, a search for extraterrestrial life that is stationed near Neptune.

Clifford McBride was the commander of the Lima Project, but has disappeared long ago. Fearing Clifford has turned into an intergalactic Colonel Kurtz, Roy is sent surreptitiously first to the Moon then to Mars before going in search of his father.

As he travels, he learns bits and pieces of the truth about both the Lima Project and Clifford from the men and women he encounters on the long journey. There's Clifford's frenemy Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), whose parents died as a result of the Lima Project.

At the military's request Roy records a message to reach his father, but in adding a personal touch they decide he isn't up to the task. Nevertheless, he goes rogue and stows away on the spaceship sent to exterminate Clifford, inadvertently killing the crew. Finally reaching Neptune, he sees his father and now finds his physical and perhaps metaphysical search at an end.

Image result for ad astraIn the spirit of positiveness I will congratulate Ad Astra (Latin for 'to the stars') for having some wonderful elements within it. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is extraordinary, filled with rich and vibrant colors. I figure that the Neptune sequence on a large or IMAX screen would leave the viewer fully immersed in this universe. Max Richter's score also was exceptional, even if oftentimes it felt as if I were listening to a Music From the Hearts of Space broadcast where one is waiting for Steven Hill to pop up. 

Visually, Ad Astra is arresting. Emotionally, it's as cold and chilly as deep space itself.

If there is one thing that I find quite irritating in films, its voiceover. Few films with voiceover work: Sunset Boulevard and Blade Runner come to mind. I think it is because more than a few films use voiceover to do the heavy lifting of story. A voiceover is sadly too often used to literally 'tell' versus 'show'. Worse, voiceover can hamper a film by locking in emotions that an actor should express in the performance itself.

That is already bad enough, but Ad Astra doubles down on that by having that voiceover by essentially whispering. I do not understand why so many filmmakers believe that whispering dialogue equals intense emotional insight. I'm suddenly reminded of The Tree of Life, another 'whispering dialogue means we are discussing deep things also starring Brad Pitt'.

Image result for ad astra
I get that Pitt's Roy was a man who reined himself him emotionally but who had hidden torrents of emotion deeply buried underneath, but it does not explain why just about everyone behaved as though all this was so serious and important. I'm not sure a single character in Ad Astra encountered genuine human emotion, apart from perhaps Loren Dean as the insecure and frightened space commander Stanford.

As a side note, we hear in Pitt's monotone voiceover that "Stanford is frightened" when asked to go investigate a Mayday call before Roy volunteers to take his place. Why director/co-writer James Gray (writing with Ethan Gross) did not trust the actors to show such things in their performances versus having to literally tell us I don't know. I also don't know why Gray opted to make even action scenes like a Moon chase so quiet. Add to that how the film wants us to feel for someone's death when we barely met him, giving us only the trope of 'family picture' to make any kind of emotional connection when the film drowns in somberness. 

This kind of quietness pushes Ad Astra down. I don't trust these types of deliberately self-aware esoteric films, so ponderous and serious where no one appears to be human.

The performances were all quiet, so there was a sameness to them that made it hard to see individuals than people. To be fair in their brief scenes Sutherland and Negga did well, and Pitt gave a correct performance of someone emotionally tight and remote. However, did everyone else need to be that distant?

Ad Astra really is a curious blending of Apocalypse Now with some Planet of the Apes (at least in one sequence where things perked up) and a dash of Major Tom (that would be the Tommy Lee Jones character). After Roy accidentally causes the deaths of the space crew, we hear that the journey to Neptune will take "79 days, 4 hours".

That might have described Ad Astra's running time.

DECISION: C-