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2021

In 2016, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women seemed wildly overlooked, even though he was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay. Here, his follow up has indeed been wildly overlooked. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Joaquin Phoenix is a chronicler of children’s stories, working on a project where he interviews kids in different US cities about their hopes and dreams and fears, the kind of endeavor that would likely end up on NPR. His work is interrupted by a crisis. His sister (Gabby Hoffman) has to take care of her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy), who is off his meds and spiraling, so Phoenix shows up in LA to watch their 9 year old boy (Woody Norman). Phoenix’s duty extends beyond the few days, and soon he is taking the boy with him to various cities for his project. A crash course in parenting, with all its trial and error, misstep and occasional triumph, ensues. Phoenix and Norman establish a relationship from near-scratch, sometimes terrifying, often insightful and ultimately enduring (it is piercing when Norman asks Phoenix if he is going to be like his father), and the bond never comes close to cloying or sentimental. Their union is authentic and fraught with peril. You simultaneously feel for Phoenix, who you can envision just shaking the boy in utter frustration, and Norman, who has his own demons to confront and is forced to confront them away from the natural comfort of his mother, home and routine.

Interspersed in the story are Phoenix’s interviews with the children, snippets of which range from heartbreaking to hopeful, and his phone calls and texts with Hoffman, with whom we quickly realize he has a difficult relationship, stemming from both the death of their mother and his rigid stance on the wisdom of her relationship with McNairy.

But the film is primarily about Phoenix and the boy. 

As with most children, there is exhaustion and exasperation, doubly so here given Norman’s issues, and Mills starkly portrays how much fun children are and how much fun they are not. We live in a society that idolizes children. As presented to us, they are mirrors to our better selves, somehow wiser, nearly always charming or charmed, almost as if America has at times become enraptured by tiny Svengalis who made “but what about the children?” our inner Gregorian chant. Listen to an adult speak to their child at the grocery store when they sense you may be in earshot. It often borders on performance, like C.O.P.S. when the fuzz know the camera is running. The parent knows they are being judged via their child and interaction with same and they have put on their best act for the judging.

Mills knows the kid is more than a handful, particularly given the precarious genetic hand given to him, and he allows for the moments where Phoenix, like you, can’t stand Norman because he is a kid. An unformed, insistent, repetitive child.

Our parents knew what the hell they were doing when they sent us to bed at the inception of the party and out of their hair to roam the streets for 12 hour stretches, and you can see Phoenix wordlessly pine for these simpler times only to analyze his reaction in a monologue to his tape recorder.

Mills also makes Norman’s self-awareness a curse and a blessing. A good friend nailed it in a text exchange. “His performance was actually great, and I like that he didn’t try to kill with cuteness. More of a personal reaction…just can’t imagine caring for a kid so annoyingly fluent in therapeutic language.”

The film is graceful, multi-faceted and subtly moving and the performances are adept and grounded across the board. In particular, Hoffman and Phoenix establish a patter that any sibling will recognize as true.

Put the phone down and really take it in.  Easy top 5 for 2021 and currently streaming for less than $5.

A pointless and excruciatingly long (2.5 hours) noir. All of the characters are thinly drawn and given second banana positioning to impossibly stylized visuals.  Before you can say “del Toro”, you’ll realize you’re in for a weak facsimile of Body Heat, minus the body and the heat, where the sex is supplanted by impeccable pre-World War II interior design. If you love art deco hallways and hotel rooms, this movie is for you!

The caper, such as it is, is laughably transparent and slapdash, having virtually no chance of success, and if you don’t have the end sussed out, you were probably justifiably looking at your phone. Cate Blanchett practically purrs with insincerity and threat, so the fact that she has any chance of getting over on grifter Bradley Cooper relegates him to super dummy status. As the love interest, Rooney Mara is dull. As the corporate titan meanie, Richard Jenkins is wasted.

I suppose it’s okay to look at, though I found the film visually just shy of the vulgar and lurid Sin City movies.

Free on HBO, which should have but did not help.     

Beautifully acted and well-executed, it is nice to see “little” films like this make a big splash for awards season, but CODA‘s inclusion also points up the dilution of the value of a best picture nomination. When you can have 10 nominees, you not only get crap (Don’t Look Up) but perfectly good films that are not extraordinary (Belfast, King Richard and this).

A high school girl (Amelia Jones) who wants to sing is hemmed in by her situation; she is the only speaking member of an all deaf family and she’s also forced to be their interpreter, diplomat, business manager, and even inspiration.  She suffers the indignity of peer mocking, familial over-reliance, and shyness, all the while guided and supported by her music teacher, who sees something in her . . . something special.

So, there’s nothing new here. But what is delivered, however familiar, is heartfelt, never overwrought (Jones infuses an attractive resignation and world-weariness into her character), and only occasionally cloying. The picture’s major misstep lies with the hip deaf parents – Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin – who are sometimes crudely overdrawn. For example, they flaunt their sexuality even as their poor daughter is enlisted to interpret their doctor’s advice that they refrain from coitus (because of jock itch), and their “birds and bees” discussion with her in front of a high school crush is excruciating in its falsity and manipulation of the audience. These are cringeworthy scenes meant to point up Jones’s burden, but they are also cartoonish and cheap.

That aside, the film is stirring and heartwarming and ultimately, it delivers. Have a hankie nearby, especially when Kotsur asks to “hear” his daughter sing.

Another feather in its cap – Jones does her own singing, is British but plays American, and learned sign language for the role.

Streaming on Apple TV.

A series of feelgood vignettes, largely through the eyes of a child (Jude Hill) in 1969 Belfast during “the Troubles”, Kenneth Branagh’s film is at times charming, and at others, a bit wince-inducing.  There are beautiful, funny and tender moments, and then there are some scenes that are almost as head-scratching as the annoyingly off-kilter soundtrack (Van Morrison is meant for listening, not for accompanying a film; the songs – and there are 10 of them! –  jut into the narrative with all the subtlety of . . . well . . . Van Morrison).

The film falters because of tone – at one moment, we see a world so idyllic as to be fantastical, almost a Busch Gardens-meets-The Quiet Man version of Ireland – and then it is interrupted by religious and sectarian violence that in and of itself seems ridiculous in its staginess.  All well and good, if we accept that we are seeing this story through the eyes of child. Similarly, we can also accept the Sergio Leon-esque confrontation between street thug and father followed by that same father crooning to his wife in an MTV-esque episode.

But then we have to slog through Branagh’s more mundane and serious depiction of the family in crisis (should they stay in Belfast or go).  It’s almost as if you were confronted with a real discussion as to the atrocities of the Nazis in JoJo Rabbit (which some dunkelheads suggested should have been the case).

There is also a dissonance between the father (played by a very weak Jamie Dornan, more hair model than working class hero) and the mother (Caitriona Balfe), who acts rings around him.

Bottom line – what’s good is good, and Hill is winning, but it’s a bit of a mess.    

One of the best westerns I’ve seen, a medium cool, richly-layered drama that begs the question: where do old gun men go to die? The answer limits a lot of what I can say about this picture, but it is anchored by world-weary Tim Blake Nelson and sauced nicely by the ever-interesting Stephen Dorff (resurrected after True Detective, Season 3).  What starts as a simple matter of competing interests and moral codes morphs into an increasingly taut mystery interwoven with a solid shoot ‘em up, one of those clusterfucks where, given the terror and adrenaline of the moment as well as the limitations of the weaponry, most people miss.

This is not the kind of vehicle you expect from the writer-director of Super Zeroes (“Two loser brothers and their simpleton roommate’s lives are forever changed when a mysterious meteor strikes their house”), but Potsy Ponciroli delivers the goods in this tale of fear of the past, secrets and loyalty.

One of the best of the year.

At 98 minutes, a Godsend. Currently on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Showtime.

Amazon.com: Nobody [DVD] : Various, Various: Movies & TV

“From the writer of John Wick . . .”

The film is John Wick, all the way down to its inexhaustible army of Russian pawns offered for slaughter. Instead of a laconic Keanu Reeves, we get a little less laconic and just a hair more put-upon Bob Odenkirk (the play against type is pretty cool). Still, while the film offers a massively high body count and is a little bloodier, it is pretty much the same as Wick minus the underworld mumbo-jumbo.

I’ve expended 2 hours in less fruitful pursuits. On HBO Max.

Prime Video: Shiva Baby

Writer-director Emma Seligman’s first feature is close to unbearably long, and it runs a mere 77 minutes. I can’t say the film isn’t good or well-acted (it is), or that Seligman does not have an assured hand and a bright future (she does). But this story of a college age girl forced to endure almost every imaginable humiliation while sitting shiva with parents and other family members who take their stereotypical Jewishness “to 11” will not be everyone’s cup of Manischewitz.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a destabilized Columbia college student who makes money on the side as a prostitute, hurriedly arrives from the bachelor pad of a trick to a post funeral gathering of a distant family member. There, she runs in to just about every person in her life capable of making her uncomfortable, with her mother the Torquemada of Brooklyn. unknowingly orchestrating her serial agonies.

Mostly cringe inducing, occasionally funny, the ingredients in Seligman’s film are off. It’s too unpleasant and abrasive, bordering on the sadistic (forget the indignities wrought by attendees, the house lacerates and nearly scalds Danielle, who spends a good portion of the film cleaning it or retreating to the bathroom). I suspect the gulf between critical acclaim and audience enjoyment is wide.

Sennott, however, is very adept at portraying young woman as leaf in the wind. We get to see Danielle in all of her insecure, self-destructive, harried glory. If that’s your thing.

On a lot “best of 2021” lists (it’s not, but it is promising). On HBO.

Nicholas Braun as Derrek, Riley Keough as Stefani, Taylour Paige as Zola and Colman Domingo as X in director Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” Cr: Anna Kooris/A24

In 2016, Janicza Bravo wrote and directed one of the better entries for the TV series Atlanta, where the two black protagonists must negotiate their fraught relationship while enduring a bizarre Juneteenth party thrown by a wealthy couple, he, white and cluelessly solicitous, she black and protective of her status.

The party is unsurprisingly surreal.

The episode is bitterly funny and arch, but Bravo is hemmed in by the room, one that gets more claustrophobic as the tenuous couple try to hold it together.

With Zola, Bravo is unrestrained, and the result is a dizzying, frenetic, trippy After Hours-esque black comedy nightmare, one based on a real life 148-tweet thread about a trip a Detroit stripper took to Florida with another stripper named Jessica.

Opening line” “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

The film is about feel, specifically, the texture of an ill-advised road trip that has gone horribly wrong.  The characters are hilarious, but they are as much pinballs as people (one of the few weaknesses; it’s easier not to care about their plight). In Bravo’s hands, the curves and jolts just keep coming, though she occasionally slows the action so the main stripper and poorest of the decision makers (Taylour Paige) can almost get her bearings. Bravo is so technically adept, these parts of the film play exactly like the part of a rollercoaster where the car deaccelerates on a curve, and then, zoom. You’re off again.

The film sports an innovative montage sequence, strange local rituals (her Florida is the land of “Florida Man” without even mentioning him), and the cellphone as arteries, veins and lungs to modern dimwits. I feel like I missed half of it and want to take the ride again. But what I saw was totally engrossing and I often laughed out loud for as long as I had time.

Bravo’s talent is undeniable and will likely be expended on the next Marvel franchise, Dr. WeirdButt of the Multiverse.

On Hulu.

The Last Duel | 20th Century Studios

Ridley Scott makes damn fun pictures, and his historical films are some of his most enjoyable. However, when he gets too wrapped up in the visuals, he often loses the thread of story, as with Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven, sumptuous, beautiful, and utterly uninvolving period pieces.

Of course, his triumph is Gladiator, a CGI-infused, sweaty swashbuckling Roman sausage fest, and to answer Russell Crowe, yes, we were entertained.

I declare that I have been entertained yet again. The Last Duel is stunning to look at, standard for Scott (it almost feels like a Rick Steves French castle fantasy tour), but also involving, adroitly tiptoeing the line of serious and playful.

The story is simple. We are in France, Normandy, in the Middle Ages. Two knights (stolid, humorless and blunt Matt Damon and dashing, conniving Lothario Adam Driver) spend a great deal of those Ages bringing heavy swords down on the heads of their enemies, intriguing at court, and eventually, becoming bitter enemies over property disputes and Driver’s influence with a more powerful knight (Ben Affleck). Their enmity reaches boiling point when Driver is accused of raping Damon’s wife (Jodie Comer). The story, based on a non-fiction book, is told through three vantage points: that of Damon, Driver, and Comer.

You may want to stop reading here, as this has just recently been released on HBO, and spoilers will follow.

We live every scene through the eyes of each protagonist. Sometimes, they match up, sometimes there are minor variations, and other times, the recollections are night and day. But the devil is in the details, and some of the differences are quite revealing. The play and import of comparison is one of the niftier aspects of the film.

The picture also has a notable feminist bent, not surprising, given the subservient nature of women at the time and the #MeToo influence during its making. But screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Can You Ever Forgive Me), Damon and Affleck, if not always subtle, are not heavy-handed and avoid the dour and instructive. In fact, the societal inquiry as to whether Comer could become pregnant via unpleasurable sex/rape is an intriguing line (if memory serves me, not too long ago, a Missouri Senate candidate torpedoed his own bid because he suggested that a woman could not become pregnant through rape).

The entire endeavor is thrilling, nail-biting, and then, because Ridley Scott is Ridley Scott, muscular, bloody and satisfactory.

Damon, who I have raved about for years as the industry’s most underrated actor (criminally ignored in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and Contagion), again delivers. After his performance in Stillwater, when, oh when, will he be properly rewarded for his performances? Driver is commanding, and as he showed in Marriage Story, there is a dark pit just underneath his easy bonhomie. Comer is often beautifully vulnerable and you feel for her right off.

But, and hear me out, Affleck near steals the picture as Driver’s sybarite patron, a man who enjoys needling Damon no end, almost as much as his wine and his orgies. Seriousness is tedium to him, and while you are supposed to sympathize with Damon, Affleck is so delicious that at times, you are swayed by his pinpoint cruelty (“He’s no fucking fun!” he kvetches to Driver). But it’s more than a foppish turn; Affleck’s prince knows the kind of harm Damon, with his unyielding sense of honor, can pose to Driver, and he does his best to ward him off.

After a little too long for my taste, the film ends in a brutal battle to the death, gripping and by no means telegraphed in terms of the victor. And while, given its feminist inclinations, it could’ve ended with some kind of solemn tut tut message for all of us (the “Medieval Epic About Believing All Women” reviews were as plentiful as predictable), instead, Scott gives us a weepy and happy Huzzah!

The Tragedy of Macbeth' Apple TV+ Review: Stream It or Skip It?

Joel Coen’s stark, bleak, black-and-white world of Scotland is discomfiting, eerie and arresting, immediately drawing your eye to it. As the characters emerge from the shadows, their agendas become apparent, that of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) being the foulest. Washington is capable, and as his descent into suspicion and madness progresses, he fully occupies the role. When revenge comes for him, he is lost and distracted, fending off portents and omens and a clever and novel rendition of one witch as three (a terrifying, freakishly limber Kathryn Hunter). Yet, he is still ferocious. I very much enjoyed how Washington played Macbeth, tortured and brooding but still lethal, even as his conversation becomes one largely with himself.

Better, Coen never lets the language become turgid in the mouths of the actors nor an obstacle to the story. You are carried along with genuine feeling for the fates of the protagonists, even though you know them in advance.

However, there are issues, the primary one being pace. Coen is almost too expeditious and the film zips along at 1:45 minutes. As my daughter rightly pointed out, more time should have been devoted to the persuasion and seduction of Macbeth. As it is, his objections feel perfunctory, and it is here Washington is weakest. Similarly, I thought Lady Macbeth’s descent into guilt-ridden madness was also rushed.  She is the progenitor of the conspiracy, and her frustrations at Macbeth’s missteps and then mental breakdown still reflect a woman who is totally in command, or at least, strategically keeping it together for her increasingly unstable husband. And then, next time we see her, she’s a total wackadoodle. Given Coen’s nifty expansion of Ross (Alex Hassell) from mere messenger to sociopathic near-puppet master, there is no reason he could not have given us more of Macbeth cajoled and Lady Macbeth degenerating.

Also, while I liked Stephen Root’s brief scene as Porter, it’s one of those Shakespeare adaptation conceits where someone cameos and really lets us have it, which is discordant.

Very good. Currently streaming on Apple.