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2018

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Starts out strong, a big, sweeping saga, great chemistry, starry and charming. There is even a real connection on stage.  Twenty minutes in, I thought I was in for a treat, and I was enthused to see an old fashioned big star Hollywood love story instead of a tired rom-com with an ugly dude, snark and irony

And then it just drags, with nothing occurring you don’t expect to occur, and what you do expect is very humdrum in the way it occurs.  Lady Gaga is not godawful but she is not good.  She is too raw, too one-note, and has no real feel for the moment, just doe-eyed insistence.  Bradley Cooper is effective as a haunted guy in a stupor with the biggest Daddy issue ever, but it ain’t heavy lifting, just a lot of looking down and slurring.

As the relationship goes longer, you realize, not only are they banal, but so are their circumstances.  She’s a bit of a petulant dummy and he’s an underdeveloped weakling.  One would think the glitzy world they inhabit would be treacherous and exciting, loaded with landmines and seductions.   One would be wrong.  They spend most of the time in bathrooms or in front of dining room or coffee tables, warbling on about nothing.

When not boring, the script is just a jumble of cliche’.  They have the same damn argument and Gaga gets worse as it goes on, more Snooki than Streisand.

It is also poorly edited. Scenes just abruptly and jarringly end. There is no flow.

This is not a good movie. It was good to see Andrew Dice Clay (as her father), though.

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Captain Fantastic was about a father who raised his kids in the woods because he did not trust modernity. It was a terrible movie, mainly because the grown man (Viggo Mortensen) wouldn’t shut up about his philosophy and how superior it was. This movie is about another father (Ben Foster) who insists on living off the grid with his teenage daughter. This is a better film, and the relationship between Foster and Thomason McKenzie is well developed.  But their circumstances suffer from too little explication.  Why are they off the grid? What brought them to this extremist situation? All we really know is that Mom is dead, Foster is introverted and plagued and that as much as he appears to love his daughter, he is really just making her share his demons.

McKenzie is accomplished as the girl torn between loyalty to her Dad and a need to connect with and be in the wider world.  Her desire to commune, to be a part of, is heart-rending.  Writer-director Deborah Granik’s Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and I can see this film doing the same for McKenzie.  Foster, as always, is stellar as the troubled father, economical and precise.  There is a scene where he is required to answer a computerized voice asking him true or false questions to determine his mental health that he handles beautifully.

There is also a thematic bright spot.  The duo are consistently helped by people who are outgoing, caring and supportive, and yet, Foster rejects all their assistance, underscoring just how near impossible it is to deal with many mentally ill people. The system and surrounding community are, for a change, not the villains. They’re the heroes. And for the most part, it ain’t enough.

On Amazon.

 

 

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Grim. Dreary and grim. As grim as any trench in World War I, where the entire film is set. We spend four days with a British unit about to be overrun by the Germans in the spring 1918 offensive.   There is no story arc, just the pitiful and doomed interplay between several officers.  War remains hell.

Mostly well acted, and in particular, Paul Bettany stands out as a doomed and comforting older officer, but that’s about it. This is a hard slog, though, mercifully short.

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Damien Chazelle has directed two gems (Whiplash, La La Land) that could not be more different, and his third picture is every bit as accomplished and even further afield tonally from his prior movies.  On the surface, the film is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the Moon landing, but this is not the gripping, white-knuckle paean to American ingenuity that was Apollo 13 or the sweeping, ironic The Right Stuff, both exquisite films in their own right.  Instead, this is the personal story of Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who, after having lost a young daughter to a malignant tumor, forge ahead in the space program, where calamity is a daily feature.  It’s a beautiful, personal picture, seamlessly melding the grit and determination of one family with an overarching, monumental and patriotic (more on that below) achievement.  It is one of the more moving yet subtle films I’ve ever seen.

Two addenda.  First, the omission of Gosling and Foy in the acting categories for the Oscars is, in my view, the filmic version of the Saints-Rams no-call.  Gosling’s driven and emotionally-stunted introvert is meticulous and engrossing, a master class in precision (think Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea).  Foy, as the wife holding it all together, is simply heartbreaking.

Second, this film caught some flack for failing to depict Armstrong planting the American flag on the Moon.  When asked (and never ask an actor anything), Gosling took as stab at an answer, observing that the landing “was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that he didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero.”

And . . . .kaboom!  The culture dummies – this time on the right – went after the picture, as some sort of anti-American agitprop.  Little Marco Rubio was particularly incensed:  “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission,on rockets built by Americans,with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

The criticism is moronic.  Films are not required to meet a quota of patriotic content.  Worse, though, the charge is false.  The singular American achievement of the landing is represented by footage of JFK literally crowing over, well, the race to that achievement.  Moreover, there is footage of a French woman who observes, “I always trust an American. I knew they wouldn’t fail.”

As if that idiocy wasn’t enough, the left weighed in to label the film a right wing fetish object with a “misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater—and that the liberating and equalizing activism of the sixties ignored, dismissed, and even undermined that greatness” or, gasp!, potentially dangerous for reinforcing the “pervasive notion about achievement—that it occurs when people toughen up and don’t let feelings impair their judgment.”

What a bunch of fucking losers.

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I loved Ex Machina but Alex Garland’s follow-up falls short.  Given the film’s ambition, however, it is a noble failure.  Natalie Portman is an ex-military, now-professor whose Special Ops boyfriend (Oscar Isaac) goes missing after a clandestine mission.  When he returns, in very bad shape, she is drawn to the mission herself, and soon finds herself part of a five person team entering “The Shimmer”, a disorienting, disturbing, inexorably expanding mass of acreage that started when something from the sky hit the ground.  As the team enters to get to the source, they are transformed by their environment, and I’ll leave it at that.

It’s pretty damn cool.  But ultimately, Garland relies so much on the visual for his message that the picture serves as more of an aesthetic treat than a compelling story.  The ideas are boffo, but the execution is a bit dreary and drawn out, and frankly, like Arrival, this film may just be over my head.

There are other problems.  Portman’s harkening back to her transgressions in her relationship with Isaac seems silly given the gravity of her situation.  I was reminded of a stupid movie I saw years back about a group of gals who decided to have a bachelorette weekend spelunking, as most women do, and as hideous mole people chased them through caves, the fact that one of the women slept with the fiancée of another actually loomed large.  “Okay, okay.  I slept with your boyfriend.  Not cool.  Now, can we get back to the mole people?”

One last note – I’m down with 5 women on a military/scientific exercise, but one should be aware of the Ghostbusters re-make and maybe switch up the uniforms.  I half expected

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to show up.

On Hulu now.

 

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Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was the best film of 2016, and his latest picture is of the same high quality, with the same dreamy, contemplative finish.  Told in flashback and forward, Jenkins’ script is based on a James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem.  We meet childhood friends Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as young adults who have become lovers.  Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and a pregnant Tish, with her family and Fonny’s father, work to pay the legal fees and perform the legwork to free Fonny from prison.

While this film is about many things, at its core, it is a love story, and Baldwin lovingly melds the city and the courtship with great care.  There are scenes that seem almost like portraits, sensuous and evocative, such is the care he takes with his actors and the setting.

The film is also about race, and in this regard, it is subdued in its expression but forthright in its message.  Baldwin is not interested in a political discussion, but instead, a demonstration of how racism pervades the lives of his characters in the seams, adding just another weight to an already heavy institutional burden.  In the wrong hands, the theme would be overwritten and perhaps worse, overacted.  Not here.  The drag of the inequity is not sugarcoated but rather, presented as an open, inescapable legacy for the characters, which leaves a deep impression.

I have two criticisms.  First, Tish often speaks in voice over, which I am not opposed to in all circumstances, but which also suggests a little distrust in the narrative.  Given the ethereal nature of the picture, Jenkins likely felt it necessary to have Tish’s voice explicitly draw us back to the story, but I found it obtrusive and unnecessary.  Second, a racist cop sends Fonny away, and when we meet him, he is so gruesome, so cartoonishly evil, it almost felt as if he would twirl his mustache.  Perhaps that is what Jenkins was going for, to show the cop as the bogeyman the characters see, but I have to say, it was discordant.

Finally, all of the performance are impressive, but as Tish’s mother, Regina King is understated, yet commanding.  She is a veteran of many movies (Ray, Enemy of the State) and even more TV series where she’s mostly powerful and overt, but here, she transcends anything she has done before with a subtle, restrained, nuanced performance.

 

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The film is conceptually ingenious, spooky, nerve wracking, terrifying and meticulously paced and acted. This tale of a family’s descent into madness and the occult scared the bejeezus out of me. Only slightly gory, the horror is all psychological. It is, however, very cruel to its characters, sometimes too cruel even for me.

I’m getting too old for this shit.