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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.

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.    

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 French Dispatch (2021) - IMDb

Wes Anderson has always injected enough feeling and pathos into his films to temper their quirky veneer. In Bottle Rocket, we cheered for the ambitious loser, Dignan. In Rushmore, there were true relationships formed between Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Olivia Williams, and to see them hurt, well . . . it hurt. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson allowed for familial connections, and the payoff was a semi-reconciliation with a bear of father, Gene Hackman. Hell, even in the zany The Life Aquatic, there was something built between Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray.

There is no such emotional draw here. Rather, the film is a series of charming, amusing vignettes, four articles from the last issue of a fictional art and culture magazine.

As stories go, in Anderson’s hands, they are funny and often ingenious.

But untethered to anything other than his novel direction, they are also unengaging. The picture is brilliant to look at but lacks any depth or resonance.

Another fear. Anderson’s style, shorn of any real requirement of character, lends itself to the “Mamet-ization” of his films, where the cadence and form are so unique, the actors become victim to caricature. There is some of that here and it is a harbinger that should be heeded.

Licorice Pizza' Review: Blossoms & Waterbeds | We Live Entertainment

When I was in grade school, I had a crush on a girl in my class. I learned that she rode horses down at stables about 3 or 4 miles from my house. Such was my infatuation, and obviously unable to share my feelings in the unforgiving world of Catholic grade school, during the school year on the weekends, I would regularly take my bike down to where the stables were, an area completely unfamiliar to me in Rock Creek Park D.C., on the minor chance that I might see her. As a testament to my persistence, this behavior continued into the summer months. I never did see her, but I never lost hope, and I met scads of other people in my travels and got into many adventures.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic delight, and watching the movie, I felt the feelings of that time. Not only did it touch this old crusty heart and its buried 5th grade crush, but it also evoked the freedom I had in the 1970s. I could do pretty much anything. My parents were tangential to my daily life. I was an unsupervised Huck Finn, floating from place to place and not expected to be seen until dinner time, if then.

I recently got together with a friend of mine (he was one of thirteen kids, I was one of five), someone who I grew up with through grade school and high school, and we were laughing about the stupid stuff that we did as rudderless vagabonds. One thing seems small, but if it occurred today, it would probably involve investigations, the police, and the local news jamming a camera in some guy’s face as he was hustled, handcuffed, to the paddy wagon.

My friend and I would regularly walk the streets and in to schools and buildings and any old place that had an open door (we’d also dig through trash, searching for the Holy Grail of a Playboy magazine or something cooler). As we ambled into one church school, we met a janitor, and we just started to walk around with him. We returned the next day and then most late afternoons to help him clean up, and then he would buy us a Coke or a candy bar from the machine. We didn’t know him and he seemed like a bit of a hippie. He didn’t think to say, “Get out of here, this is my job.” He was a pretty nice guy and there were no shenanigans. And for the life of me, I can’t remember why we stopped, but we probably just moved onto the next thing.

But that was standard. I had other grade school friends who would sing with me in front of the Hamburger Hamlet – and none of us could sing – hoping someone would throw us change. When one of their streets was blocked off for a traffic rerouting, at night, we would drape our bodies over the barricades as if we had been murdered, just to get people out of their cars when they hit the dead end. Stupid stuff, pre-booze. You were on your own and unfettered with no one to evaluate the logic or wisdom of your choices.

Licorice Pizza brought those days back. We are introduced to 15 year old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25 year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), both of whom live in Southern California in the era of the oil embargo. Valentine is a minor celebrity, but his acting star is waning as he develops into the ungainly teen in all of us. He is, however, nothing if not persistent (he winningly describes himself as a “song and dance man”), and soon, after establishing a connection he believes is true love with Alana, he establishes a waterbed business and then a pinball palace, all with a troupe of young acolytes, including his brother, and mainly with the participation, if not direction, of Alana.

Theirs is a beautiful love story, mostly unrequited, with both protagonists suffering the pain of watching the other flirt or more with others. Gary is a mature 15-year-old, a fiercely independent romantic who loves Alana and at the outset, has no problem saying it. Alana is an immature young woman, constantly beleaguered by her surroundings and her family, who fiercely fights the fact that she is bound to Gary. When you see them hurt each other, and Thomas Anderson subtly places you in the frame, you watch their expressions when they see the other with someone else. Again, I was transported to my youth. I felt the pain when someone you really “loved” in grade school or high school hurt you, almost assuredly unconsciously, but sometimes, with purpose. Your armor wasn’t there, your “cool” undeveloped. It stung. A scene where Gary calls Alana knowing that she has been out on a date with his older friend, where his breathing communicates his anguish, is a beautiful and piercing reminder.

The film is a joy. A breezy, journey through 1973 Southern California, where Alana and Gary come to terms with their attraction, while essentially getting into adventures, including not only the aforementioned businesses, but run-ins with, of all people, Hollywood producer and former Barbra Streisand boyfriend Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, demolishing his scenes) and who appears to be a very close facsimile to William Holden, Jack Holden (Sean Penn) (the film’s Jack Holden starred in the film The Bridges at Toko-San rather than The Bridges at Toko-Ri).

The look of the film is so spot on your jaw drops. Little things, like the old fancy neighborhood restaurant and pub, The Tale o’ the Cock, feel exactly like the restaurants and bars that populated my old neighborhood growing up, and I did not grow up in the San Fernando Valley. The dark wood, the wine bottle glass windows, the lattice. Perfect.

The performances are relentlessly good. Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, has a presence that you could see in his father as early as Scent of a Woman and Nobody’s Fool. Haim, a member of the band Haim, it’s so raw and natural it may be difficult for her to expand. I’m just having difficulty seeing her in another role.

tt’s almost inconceivable, but this is the first film role for both actors.

The best film of the year and one of the best I’ve seen in some time.

Don't Look Up (2021) - Spoilers and Bloopers - IMDb

Alternate title.

“I Am Smarter Than You.”

Adam McKay, the talent who brought you Anchorman and Talladega Nights, is indeed smarter than you and the cross he must bear is that he is cursed to live in a nation of Luddites and buffoons. If you chortle and nudge your partner knowingly during this ball of crap, and maybe even raise an “it’s funny because it’s so true” eyebrow, there is an 87% chance you have a “ If you are not appalled, you are not paying attention” bumper sticker on your car.  So, if you have that message, or its kin (“Hate Has No Home Here”), on your car, or lawn, or in your head, this is a must watch!

And the bonus with McKay?

Now, he’s not funny.

Two scientists, a clueless Leonardo DiCaprio and a droll Jennifer Lawrence, learn that a meteor is hurtling to earth and when they sound the alarm, every caricature of the fevered dreams of a rich Hollywood do-gooder are introduced, each dumber or more racist or venal or crass than the next, all in service to an obvious, endless sermon poorly masquerading as a black satire.

McKay is the whingy douchebag who used to tack on political messages to films like The Campaign, where Will Ferrell punched a baby and a dog, and The Other Guys, where Will Ferrell played a fastidious NYC detective who was given a wooden gun. It was a fey conceit you could overlook because it occurred during the credits and you were walking out of the theater after watching some boffo fart humor (and here, I kid not – McKay’s Step Brothers is a modern classic, and a lot of McKay’s earlier stuff is the creme de la creme of fart humor).

But now, after some success outside the realm of farts (The Big Short, Vice), he’s made his hobby the main course.

Cringe bad. On Netflix.

A mash up of You’ve Got Mail and Eddie and the Cruisers

Okay, not really. But kind of. Rose Byrne is a curator of the historical society in a small English seaside town, and she lives with her professor boyfriend Chris O’Dowd, whose primary passion is the work and life of an alt rock phenom of the 80s, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Hawke went into hiding at the height of his underground fame, thus making him even more of an enigma and obsession for O’Dowd and like-minded fans. 

O’Dowd clearly loves Hawke more than Byrne, and his primary focus is on the blog he manages which is solely dedicated to his idol. In a fit of pique, Byrne posts a scathing review of Hawke’s work, and Hawke alights from his bunker to respond, thereby sparking an intimate long distance connection. 

To tell more would be a true spoiler. This is a charming, very funny, clever film. Byrne (the hardest working woman in pictures) is her winning self and O’Dowd painfully funny, but Hawke steals the film as the jaded, regretful but still hopeful former “star” (we are not talking David Bowie; think Jeff Tweedy, after the first two Wilco records, just disappearing). Chock full of wry observations on hero worship, the digital age, the concept of family, and intimacy.

I knocked this down half a point because Byrne has a sister who is just a little too “on” and the film ends rather abruptly.

On Amazon Prime.

My Favourite Christmas Movie - Home Alone

John Hughes produced and wrote this Christmas classic about a kid accidentally left “home alone” for the holiday. Hughes pushes the syrup, but this picture has more of Looney Tunes-Meets-Tarantino vibe.  What little Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) does to burglars Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci is waayyyyyyy beyond enhanced interrogation.  I had to leave the room more than once, such was the barbarity, but I did see Kevin shoot them point blank with a pellet gun (balls and forehead), burn their heads and hands, smash their faces with full swinging paint buckets and a hot iron, cut a rope line so they crashed into brick, and ice the stairs and litter the floor with tiny cars (resulting in perhaps permanent spinal injury to both men). He also placed sharp objects under the windows, and even a nail, which went through Stern’s foot.  I think variations of tar-and-feathering occur as well, and the kid even uses a live tarantula to terrorize the duo. 

Now, I’m generally a “stand your ground” guy; if you stick your fingers inside the facemask, you get bit.  But this is just too much.

When the mayhem is not in session, the movie is a little ho-hum.  Kevin is not that cute, his family are a coterie of monsters (except for his Dad, John Heard, Gonzaga alum and fittingly nonplussed by the abandonment of his child), and as with almost all John Hughes films, almost every adult is a moron or a cretin.