Robert Benton was no slouch (Kramer v. Kramer, Places in the Heart). Indeed, he wrote and directed one of my favorite films (Nobody’s Fool), and I could watch Paul Newman sell Tang. Throw in Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman and James Garner (and super young Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber) in a noir-ish tale of an old Hollywood murder and it seems can’t miss. But miss Twilight does. Sarandon is too young for the role of the former grand dame and the love story between her and Newman is unconvincing. Worse, the mystery is just not that intriguing. Still, the picture has Newman, who is wry and world-weary in that Newman way. Hackman is fantastic, as always, and Garner is just the right mix of folksy and sinister.
As for Still of the Night, it alternates between psychological thriller and moody, smoldering romance. It is terrible at both and badly cast as well. Roy Scheider is best caustic and as a man of action, a terrible choice for a quiet, introverted psychologist. Meryl Streep as a breathy young ingenue wrapped up in a murder is all wrong. She’s many things, almost all good, but carnal and smoldering ain’t in her bag of tricks. Her performance nears a Saturday Night Live character.
The film is drab and clunky. It has aspirations to be Hitchcockian, but it lacks all of the care. The romance is preposterous, and the score is sickly sweet. And as a whodunit, the killer can really only be one person.
George Clooney’s overly meditative, end of the world film makes the initial mistake of not quite telling us what happened to the planet. Something about radiation, and since he is alone in the Arctic, we are alone with him and his flashbacks and perhaps his hallucinations as he dies of cancer. But once you get a sense of the kind of ridiculous, ass-backward people living in the future, the cause of their extinction is of no great moment. They say chickens are so stupid they’ll drown in the rain. That’s us forty years hence.
But Clooney has one last task before he perishes. He must get word to an incoming space vessel from Jupiter that the world has gone to pieces. They have been on a two year mission and soon, they will be “in range” and Clooney can tell them, “Go back to the habitable moon near Jupiter. Great danger here.”
This film is set in 2049.
Now, imagine I am Peter Finch. I want you all to stop reading, and go Google, “How long does it take to send a message to jupiter”.
Result: “approximately 35 minutes. Radio waves travelling at 300,000 km/second would take approximately 35 minutes to reach a satellite orbiting Jupiter depending on alignment, and the same time to travel back to Earth, equaling about 1.2 hours.”
But filmvetter, you might say, the radiation threat just came on so quick there was no time!!! THERE WAS NO TIME!!!!!!
Nonsense. When the ship does get “in range” of Clooney and they establish contact, a message is downloaded (ha!!!) from the wife of crew member Kyle Chandler.
In it, she states that she is being evacuated and their sons are sick.
So, this calamity took some time. Indeed, the opening scene shows continued evacuations and there is a later reference to survivors underground.
I guess in all the panic, however, no one thought, “Hey, let’s send a raven to the incoming ship from the potentially habitable moon off of Jupiter.” It’s like the president was George Costanza and someone yelled, “Fire!”
It gets worse.
In The Martian, I raved about Matt Damon’s intrepid skills when he was stranded, and I also nit-bitched about the hip slackers on the ground (“the people who work at NASA have a certain blasé “I worked in a Blockbuster and I will never wear a uniform again” mien”)
I owe the NASA staff in The Martian an apology. They were the cream of the crop compared to this lot. And while Damon was dexterous and tough, here, the crew presents as a mixture of incurious and frivolous. When they learn that life on our planet has not only changed, but that the planet is lethal, half of them somberly insist on going to their homes to face certain death. They literally abandon ship. The other half head off back to Jupiter with a badly damaged vessel minus two critical team members. But all four seem unperturbed. Where is Chuck Heston and “You maniacs! You blew it up!” when you need him?
Oh, and the two who are Jupiter-bound are Captain Daniel Oyewelo and Felicity Jones. It appears the good captain has been at it with the crew, because she is pregnant with his child! Another crew member, Tiffany Boone, throws up several times because she has to make her first space walk. And she’s not even the one who is knocked up.
Or is she?
Mind you, this was not a 20 year voyage.
It was two!!!!!!!
(A good friend did note that at least the movie progeny will be something special, as the offspring of a filmic Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.)
Alas, NASA, apparently, becomes the DMV in the future.
Ultimately, the film is not only stupid, it is depressing. In the future, we supplant bravery and common cause and sense with uber-narcissism.
The schmaltzy, arty ending is insufferable.
Adding insult to injury, there’s a crew sing-a-long to Sweet Caroline.
Mank is to the truth of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz what Citizen Kane was to the truth of William Randolph Hearst, which I suppose is fitting. What the film lacks in accuracy, however, it makes up for in the beautifully textured black-and-white photography of David Fincher, the inventive and alluring re-creation of old Hollywood, and the crackling dialogue of Fincher’s own father, Jack, who penned the screenplay. The picture makes much of Mankiewicz’s struggle between his own internal liberal ideals and the fact that he is, in essence, a kept corporate cog, one of a gaggle of screenwriters collected, fed, watered and otherwise maintained by the big studios in the 30s and 40s (see Barton Fink, for a darker rendition). However, the real Mankiewicz was no liberal, he and Hearst were not nearly so enmeshed and cozy, and neither man cared a whit about the California gubernatorial campaign of progressive Upton Sinclair, which is presented as the cause of their rupture. It is all hooey.
But boy, does this hooey have some moments. Jack Fincher never engages in caricature. Mankiwiecz is not tortured; as brilliantly played by Gary Oldman, he’s comfortable, irresponsible, casually cruel, and it nags at him. And when his indignation becomes righteous, he does not subdue the opposition with his wit and moral force. To the contrary, he’s compromised and often grotesque. And the heavies, in particular Hearst (Charles Dance) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), give as good as they get. In one scene, Thalberg tries to get Mankiewicz to toe the party line and, like all other studio employees, contribute to Sinclair’s GOP opponent. Thalberg is both solicitous of Mankiewicz but put-off by his casual, self-serving and spotty high-mindedness, and he sticks it to him. The scene reminded me of a great one in Good Night and Good Luck, between Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and William Paley (Frank Langella) after the former has just been morally urgent and condescending and Paley reminds him that he is not above constraints:
Let’s walk very carefully through these next few moments. The content of what we’re doing is more important than what some guy in Cincinnati…
PALEY It’s what you’re doing, Ed. Not me. Not Frank Stanton. You. “CBS News”, “See It Now” all belong to you, Bill.
MURROW You wouldn’t know it.
PALEY What is it you want? Credit? I never censored a single program. I hold on to affiliates who wanted entertainment from us. I fight to keep the license with the very same politicians that you are bringing down and I never, never said no to you. Never.
MURROW I would argue that we have done very well by one another. I would argue that this network is defined by what the news department has accomplished. And I would also argue that never saying no is not the same as not censoring.
Really? You should teach journalism. You and Mr. Friendly. Let me ask you this: why didn’t you correct McCarthy when he said that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason? He was only convicted of perjury. You corrected everything else. Did you not want the appearance of defending a known Communist?
Similarly, the scene where Mankiewicz really sticks it to Hearst is not the crowd-pleasing tell-off a lesser writer would have delivered. In fact, Hearst is nonplussed, a fact that underscores the drunken cowardice of Mankiewicz while Hearst witheringly dispenses with him.
The Finchers’ lack of fealty to the truth is almost Hearst-esque in a “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” sort of way (also fittingly, Hearst likely never said or wrote any such thing) and as such, its fanciful history is not offensive or overbearing. These are, after all, minor historical figures merely making a movie and imbuing false thoughts and actions to them doesn’t presage some sort of larger “truth” or ideological posture. Still, Orson Welles changed “Hearts” to “Kane.” Fincher probably could have called it “Monk.”
Still, the picture is dazzling to watch, often good fun, a decent companion to the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar!.
This film is now on the HBO rotation and I surprised myself when I realized I hadn’t reviewed it. It is an exceptional picture, a crisp and intelligent thriller.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm. But he’s no legal eagle. Rather, he’s a “fixer “, a guy who can get you a heads up on an indictment or bail out the son of a big client for a drunk and disorderly. Clayton also happens to be a gambling addict with a host of debts. This is Clooney’s best role. There’s not a hint of his bankable but often annoying, self-satisfied “you know, I’m acting” grin.
His entire persona aligns with the disappointments of his endeavors. As a fixer, he is anything but glamorous or intrepid. When called to the home of a major corporate client after being oversold by his managing partner, Clayton has to firmly tell the man (who has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run after drinking and likely engaging in infidelity) that his talents are pretty pedestrian — the client needs a good criminal lawyer and Clayton “likes” someone local for the job. When the fuming and underwhelmed client taunts Clayton with, “A miracle worker. That’s Walter on the phone twenty minutes ago. Direct quote, okay, ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker’”, his response is a summation of his self-worth: “Well he misspoke . . . There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.“
Clayton’s game is poker, which, of course it is, because it is the only game where the winner can take your money and humiliate you in the process.
Still, Clayton maintains a resolute decency and innocence as he is enveloped by a conspiracy involving the law firm’s largest client, its’ ambitious and single-minded general counsel (Tilda Swinton) and the firm’s mercurial wiz litigator (Tom Wilkinson), who goes off his meds and imperils both the corporation and the firm. Clooney is almost pathetic as he feigns sophistication while asking the firm’s managing partner if, in fact, there is something truly insidious about the corporation. A perfectly cast Sydney Pollack replies, “This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?“
This is a legal thriller that more than meets both bars. The story is engrossing and writer-director Tony Gilroy must have spent some time in a modern law firm, because he has the milieu, the patter, and the casual arrogance of the place down cold. Big time law firms are funny places, populated by very smart people who convince themselves they are priests, and damned if they don’t attract their own sort of worshipful congregations.
Nominated for Best Picture in 2007, unfortunately for Gilroy and the film, the same year as No Country for Old Men.
Look. I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into when I saw the previews. Ben Affleck, down and out, drinking beers in the shower, stumbling home from the bar, and then, redemption by way of the call from the old school, “Hey, man, we need a hoops coach.” All the signs of schmaltz-fest, for which I was totally down. Also, this movie received an 84% on Rottentomatoes.
While it penetrated the outer-lining of the heart once or twice (though that may have been indigestion), for the most part, this is a bad movie. Let me count the ways.
*Affleck takes a 1-9 woefully undersized team with no apparent talent and makes them a playoff contender on 1) the pre-existing “motion” offense (he just screams “move” and “set picks”); 2) profanity/appeals to their manhood; 3) a full game, full court press. Come on.
*He has dark secrets that have brought him to rock bottom. We learn about them later, but nowhere near enough. He just seems like his quiet character in The Town, but he’s not planning a heist.
*His wife, who shares his tragedy, is played by someone who must have said, “Okay, Ben is playing this low-key. I will not be out low-keyed. I will trump his low-key simmer by being catatonic.” She succeeds. Their scenes together are master classes in boredom and diffidence.
*The film is ostensibly about relationships, but not one is established. You have no idea how Affleck ended up with his dead-eyed ex-wife. The actor who plays his sister could not have been more unlike him. He establishes one relationship with a player, to whom he says “lead” and ”shoot” and then inexplicably, visits the player’s father, who, straight out of the cliché jar, hates basketball because when he was a star, it did not work out for him. That scene takes 41 seconds, whereupon Affleck shrugs.
*Affleck does connect a little bit with his algebra teaching assistant coach, who ends up being the worst kind of rat fink, and in the process, reveals the school as heartless and joyless.
*Is the filmic sign of being really down and out drinking beer in the shower? Affleck drinks loads of beer in the shower. While I’m at it, is beer really the choice of bottom-of-the barrel alcoholics? It seems like a lot of work.
*The piano music in this picture is as intrusive as a tornado warning. Plink, plink . . . be moved! Be moved!
*His players don’t seem modern. Affleck makes a reference to The White Shadow, which is funny, but it is telling. These players act as if they came to the court straight from The Disney Channel.
Lastly, and critically, Affleck plays a former high school hoops star yet he in no way, shape or form looks like he ever played hoops, much less was an All-American. I’m 56 in October and until the pandemic, was still playing hoops every week. I know what older men in all shapes and sizes who play hoops look like, even if they are not playing basketball but rather, just moving a little and dribbling. When Affleck gets on the court, he just kind of walks around. He holds the ball like a cantaloupe. I do not believe.
I have seen several Emmas. I believe this is my favorite, primarily, because this Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the perfect blend of headstrong, spoiled, meddlesome and smart. Better, when she finally gives in to her desire for Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, who was totally different as the lovelorn, quiet good guy in Amazon’s excellent Vanity Fair), the timing is spot on, and she and Flynn play very well together. Best, when they argue, they stand their ground and then in charming fashion, fix a détente that all but they see as love.
Here is a not very good “Badly done” scene, mainly because Johnny Lee Miller just snaps and Romola Garai looks like she hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.
Here is a terrible “Badly done” scene. Jeremy Northam is very good, but Gwyneth Paltrow starts at weepy and then just folds.
In this film, when Knightly upbraids Emma (I cannot find the scene), she does not crumple in the revelation of her awful behavior. She’s still pissed and fighting. Only later, after some time, does she make amends and then, not in a simpering fashion.
Moreover, this a master class in wordless chemistry.
Finally, you cannot do much better than Bill Nighy’s fussy, movingly emotional Mr. Woodhouse, plagued by drafts and daughters who abandon him, and Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown) who chews scenery by the fistfuls as Mr. Elton.
Is it possible to have a Pete Davidson marathon? Why, yes. Yes it is. I watched two Pete Davidson flicks in a week and enjoyed them both, with varying levels of enthusiasm. In Big Time Adolescence, Davidson plays Zeke, a man-child who bonds with the little brother of a high school girlfriend. When they break up, Zeke keeps hanging with the kid (Griffin Gluck). When we settle down with them, Zeke is a stoner townie in his mid-twenties with a gaggle of amusing stoner pals and as much drive and ambition as Cheech. He’s offbeat, almost impenetrable, and when you do get in that addled head, the most you find is ennui and poor judgment with a little bit of decency. As coming of age films go, this one is adept, often very funny, and refreshingly short (91 minutes). It also features nice support from Jon Cryer, Gluck’s frustrated father, who has to confront Davidson’s cluelessness not only as a danger to his high school age son but as a rival for his affections.
Sunday night, it was time to shell out the $20 to watch Davidson’s semi-autobiographical movie, The King of Staten Island (Davidson co-wrote the picture with the King of Bro-Comedy, Judd Apatow). Here, Davidson plays a 24 year old man-child, stoner townie with a gaggle of amusing stoner pals and as much drive and ambition as Chong. He’s offbeat, almost impenetrable, and when you do get in that addled head, the most you find is ennui and poor judgment but a little bit of decency. It also features nice support from Marisa Tomei, Davidson’s frustrated mother, and Bill Burr, a neighbor who becomes her suitor. Burr has to confront Davidson’s cluelessness as a danger to his own son, and, lo and behold, Davidson bonds with the kid.
Apatow’s flick, however, is a bumpier ride for several reasons. First, Davidson leads here, and he’s just not an empty-headed nice guy, but he’s also suffering from depression, suicidal ideation and unresolved sorrow over the death of his father when he was 7 years old. I’m not going to say Davidson was bad, because he has his moments. But it was much tougher duty, and his performance is spotty. Sometimes he nails it, sometimes you can almost see the terror in his eyes that he’s not cutting it. Worse, at 136 minutes, the picture is way long, and it drags (Apatow’s daughter plays Davidson’s sister and it almost appears as if her role was beefed up by Daddy).
Finally, Davidson’s character in In Big Time Adolescence was understandable because, no matter his actions, you perceived him to be a dummy. A sweet kid, but, also an airhead. [SPOILERS BELOW] So, when he advises his young charge to sell drugs in order to enhance his cred, it seems reasonable. Stupid, but in the context of his character, entirely in line. In Apatow’s picture, Davidson is not a dummy, but rather, a dick, and way too old to be the kind of dick he portrays. So his unattractive excesses are difficult to endure. A lazy stoner entranced by SpongeBob while his mom and sister pack up her car for college? It sets your teeth on edge, but as my kids would derisively retort, “Okay Boomer.” But giving a 9 year old kid a tattoo? Or whining like a little bitch because his mother deigns to date? It’s too much, and Davidson does not have the chops to communicate the inner haunting that can get you and him over. It’s an amusing film, and has a few solid gut-busters, but if you had to choose one, save yourself the 46 minutes and the $20 and go with the former (which is free on Amazon Prime).
Robert Altman directed this film after his three masterpieces – M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye– and directly before his next one, Nashville. It has all the hallmarks of an Altman film . . . overlapping dialogue, a leisurely almost poetic pace, and a complete disregard for traditional narrative.
The film is essentially about two degenerate gamblers – George Segal and Eilliot Gould – who haunt the poker rooms, casinos and race tracks of California and Nevada in search of the juice. While Gould is carefree and seemingly happily stuck in the mire, Segal has one foot in the straight world and one foot in the dens of iniquity. He owes, he craves, and he can’t wait for the next shot at a pot, so much so that when Gould leave him for a week, he feels as if he’s being ripped off, that somehow, his partner is keeping a score away from him.
Unlike some of Altman’s better films, there’s no real character development here. Segal and Gould simply happen upon each other at a poker room and start hanging out and kibbitzing, often with two working girls who live with Gould. Altman is so intrigued by the machinations of the lowlife, he forgets that we are only here to see what happens to these addicts. And, until the end, not much does happen to them.
Ultimately, Segal comes to a fork in the road, but it is a bolt from the blue. We don’t know much about him and Altman doesn’t really let us in. So, when he takes one road over another, it is of no real moment.
Still, it’s a fascinating picture with a real affinity for the disreputable denizens of the 70’s cocktail bar, race track and casino. Altman doesn’t glorify but he does offer a vivid portrait of the world.
Confession: I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s classic nor have I seen any prior Little Women films, so my frame of reference is limited. That said, I contend I am the perfect viewer, the empty cipher coming in with no preconceptions.
I loved the film. Greta Gerwig’s rendition is beautifully rendered, lovingly crafted, and anchored by a stirring performance by Saiorise Ronan as the proto-feminist sister Jo. Gerwig plays with timeline, so you see the four March sisters in different parts of their lives, a technique most effective for Jo, whose rebellious desire to be an independent creative thinker beholden to no man is effectively juxtaposed by her later, harder and more lonely life.
Gerwig’s eye is expert and many of her scenes are breathtaking. In particular, Jo and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) on the hillside as she recognizes her love for him also means the death of her art, and Jo and her sister Beth reading on the beach, joined as one by her writing. Yet, the film is also earthy and sharp. When Jo watches the manufacturing of her first novel, Gerwig plays it almost as if it were a form of childbirth. Indeed, there is no more protective mother than Jo as she negotiates her percentage and rights with her publisher, the very wry Tracy Letts.
There are minor problems. Two of the four girls are underdeveloped (the film, and I can’t believe I am writing this, should have been longer), and the mother (Laura Dern) is so angelic she barely registers at all. Moreover, an attempt to have one of the sisters (Florence Pugh) play pre-adolescent results in a jarring scene where she is so malicious to Jo that it could only be countenanced were it the act of a very young child. Since Pugh looks older than that, it seems unforgivable. Finally, there is the father, who returns from the Civil War and lo and behold, it is none other than . . . Bob Odenkirk, wearing a Union cap better fit for a trick ‘r treater. I imagine it seems like niggling, and I was prepared to overcome the dissonance by the exertions of his performance, but upon his entry into the film, there is no performance. He has perhaps 2 or 3 terse lines. So, that was weird, akin to introducing Will Ferrell in the role and then making him mute.
Jennifer Lopez is a revelation, but what she reveals is what we already knew from the Super Bowl; she has a super-human ability to keep a middle-aged body toned, flexible and sexy. Bravo, but as Demi Moore proved in her stripper film, solid moves on the pole can only take you so far. Lopez is cunning, and commanding, but she is little more, and she cannot make up for the amateurish performances of her cohorts, a bunch of dancers-with-hearts-of-tin who sign on to her scheme.
When the movie focuses on the crime, it is light, watchable, brisk entertainment. The strippers engineer a lucrative con outside the club, where they butter a mark up, slip him a roofie, max out his credit card, and when he wakes up, he assumes he had the night of his life (and if he is shocked at the price, what is he going to say?) There is real humor and juice in these scenes.
Unfortunately, they are interrupted by the dull story of our protagonist Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), a girl who just needs a Mommy (Lopez) to show her the tricks of the trade. Wu is not a very good actor, and her little girl lost routine seems silly (strippers are many things; guileless ain’t one of them). Wu’s naivete, however, is a necessary predicate to the lamest part of the film, because first time feature writer-director Lorene Scafaria is set on saying something about family and loyalty and the rest. When the gals are all together, their essential goodness and mutual support flows freely as they bestow gifts upon each other and extol the virtues of famil . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Scafaria also uses the interview/flashback technique to tell the story, so we get the prim, white journalist (Julia Stiles) interviewing Wu after it has all gone to shit. I suppose Scafaria wanted to juxtapose Wu’s hard-bitten travail with that of a privileged, educated writer, but the exchanges are clunky. An example:
DESTINY What’s your name again?
YOUNG WOMAN Elizabeth.
DESTINY Did you grow up with money, Elizabeth?
ELIZABETH We were…comfortable.
DESTINY Right. What’d your parents do?
ELIZABETH My dad was a journalist. And my mom’s a psychiatrist.
DESTINY Where’d you go to school?
ELIZABETH Brown. For undergrad.
DESTINY What would you do for a thousand dollars? Of course the answer depends on what you already have and what you need.
This might have worked if Wu herself didn’t seem like she was rejected from Brown but got in to Bryn Mawr instead, and if Scafaria fleshed the conversation out a little bit (ELIZABETH: “I need it.” That sounds like want any criminal would say, no?).
Instead, it just lays there, flat, interrupting the caper and making both characters even more tedious, if possible.