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Drama

The least sentimental coming of age film I’ve ever seen, James Gray’s (Ad Astra) autobiographical reflection of a middle-class Queens family at the advent of Reagan is evocative, unstinting and spare. Paul (Repeta Banks) is an artistic, unfocused, silly, and obnoxious sixth grader, doted on by his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), cherished by his wise grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and in terror of his father Irving (Jeremy Strong), who can be silly too, but who also sports a volcanic temper.

Paul is a dreamer. He falls in with rebellious black kid Johnny (Jaylin Webb) at the public-school they attend and soon, he is in with this wrong crowd of one. Paul’s rebellion runs smack dab into the instincts and hopes of his extended family, which include elderly immigrant grandparents and an uncle and an aunt. 

This is a film about many things, but family is paramount.  When Irving beats Paul for getting in trouble at school, the scene is disturbing, but when Paul mutters, “I hate you… [I] hate this family…”, Irving returns and in Strong’s face, registers that there is no greater calumny (I thought for a split second an already brutal strapping was going to escalate). The family is the vehicle for all success and support.  They changed their distinct name of “Greizerstein” to “Graff,” and they want Paul out of public school, Esther being the last resistance. Per the aunt, “The class sizes are out of control, and the kids that they have coming in from the neighborhoods from all over.  The Blacks, coming in…” eliciting a gasp and rebuke from Esther.  These are, after all, traditional liberals (early on, Irving watches Reagan being interviewed, and comments “Sounds like a Class-A schmuck” and the film near-closes with the glum family watching Reagan’s victory and predicting nuclear war). But the facial response to Esther’s objection is a weary capitulation, an “it is what it is.”

They reminisce about their familial, generational struggles and focus on their shared goal of success. Sure, art is great, but an “artist”?

Paul’s behavior lands him in the private school attended by his older brother. The school’s most influential patron is none other than Fred Trump, and soon, Paul is in a new world.  When Johnny visits, he is on the other side of the playground fence, as we see Paul awkwardly shying away from his former partner in crime.

Went I went to private Catholic school in ’78, I came with a crew of over a dozen boys from grade school, every one of them white, into a feeder for Catholic parishes all over D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Until that time, the black kids I knew were the children of diplomats, literally and figuratively, from another country.  All of a sudden, there were a lot of black compatriots, kids probably just as scared as I was, but seemingly, not.  And in those years, there was casual racism where I (and many others, I am sure) was Paul, keeping my head low, negotiating the moment with assuredly too much regard for my own skin, smirking an endorsement or pretending I didn’t hear.  For every decent moment or objection, there were three of cowardice.

Gray does a wonderful job of depicting just how mundane and routinized these negotiations really are. As Irving tells Paul, “When you get older you can change the world.  Right now, you just need to get past this and become a mensch. Your friend got the shaft, you feel bad.  I understand that.” Modern dramatizations take such vignettes and make them seminal, even momentous. As Gray shows, they are more often than not pedestrian and disposable (“You just need to get past this”) or, in Gray’s most optimistic declaration, per Aaron:

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ

It’s hard to fight.  Isn’t it.

PAUL GRAFF (beat)

I tried.

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ

How do you think you did?

TEARS FORM in PAUL’S EYES.  He starts to shake his head.

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ (CONT’D)

You’ll have a lot more chances.  And it will happen, again and again.  It won’t be easy.

It’s hard to overstate Gray’s deftness and restraint (another reviewer nailed it with, “At its most muted, it leaves a respectful distance for the audience to think”).  An example.  In the hands of a lesser writer, Paul’s matriculation at the Trump school would have been an ordeal through and through.  And it is not without its blots.  The casually racist kid, the strictures, the cliques.  But there is also attention to Paul, the kind that money brings, that every parent wants for their child, the kind where a troublesome kid isn’t immediately discarded as “slow” (the determination of Paul’s public-school principal). At public school, Paul’s “art” is doodling, dummy stuff. At his new private school, it is encouraged, even celebrated.  

And the Trumps, in the form of Fred (John Diehl) and Maryanne (cameo by Jessica Chastain), could have been lampooned.  In Gray’s hands, they are utilized. Both characters, in talks to the students, revere America in the vein of a zealot. As Fred Trump tells the kids, “Because we have a new president, a new beginning, a return to America’s rightful place in the world. I know speaking for myself personally I couldn’t have more hope than I do at this very moment in our future. So. When I look out, and I see all these beautiful, handsome kids, clean-cut… You’re ready to face the world–you’re being taught all the right things. And you’ll be the leaders. Leaders in business, finance, politics, all aiming to keep our country good and strong.”

Take the reference to “Class-A schmuck” Reagan out, and you can see Paul’s family nodding in reverential assent.

Similarly, Hopkins, as Paul’s soulmate, exhibits the lessons of his past, lovingly supporting Paul’s artistic ambitions while shocking Paul by admitting he was the key vote for the school change (“Because the game is rigged.  And we have to do everything we can for you and your brother”).

The rigging of the game and the fate of Johnny coalesce to end the picture, and like everything that came before, there’s no easy lesson or dawning.

The performances are pitch perfect. As Irving, Strong is noteworthy, a man who doesn’t really have control of his house or the respect he thinks he should be afforded, alternating between explosion and understanding.  The child actors are natural and Webb in particular evinces an affecting blend of the cynical, the world-weary, and the aspirational.

One of the best of the year.                              

All the visual gifts in the world, and those of director Robert Eggars (The Witch) are prodigious, can’t make this Viking tale of filial vengeance any less stupid. There are a few joys - massive overacting (well played, Ethan Hawke, but Nicole Kidman wins by a nose), a few impressive scenes of sackings, the beautiful Northern Ireland topography standing in for Iceland - but boredom wins out, and by the end, it isn’t much of a fight. 

High and mindless, the picture could have used Game of Thrones’ intelligence or the John Boorman Excalibur’s fun. Instead, we get gory drug trips and silly moments when the film feels closer to RenFest than Valhalla. More hamburger than Hamlet. 

I do like how many of the actors try to do Norse and come off Transylvanian. 

“Well, that was quite a thing” – my wife, at the end of the movie. Spoiler. Animals die.

About my wife. When that occurs, consider all your slack given.

It is indeed, however, quite a film, one that works as a fable, a meditation, and a beautiful, conflicted, messy tale of the shackles, joys and miseries of isolation, friendship and love.

I have a deep frustration with people who have the kind of depression that blots out the sun and cripples those who love them so much that they become collateral damage. The narcissism. The “I don’t take drugs because they change the essence of meeeeeeeeeeee!” The voracious appetite for the steadfastness of the simpletons who take the kicks and keep coming back for more. Blech. I’m not always proud of it but it is genuine and fixed in my marrow.

Here, a depressed, artistic man in despair (Brendan Gleeson) cuts off his simple, dull pal (Colin Farrell) even though they are lifelong friends on a barren Irish Island. The disassociation is brutal and final and nothing less than an assault from the intellectually superior and more sophisticated of the union. Every instinct I had was to decry Gleeson and champion Farrell, even as I grudgingly respected Gleeson’s stand, cruel and self-abasing as it was. I’m more gravitated to the simple and the banal, the loyal, Particularly when the artist’s excesses, in all their Van Gogh glory, start taking hostages. Taken at face value, it was no contest.

But as the picture progressed, my sympathies for both men equalized. Somewhat. Against all of my internal instincts. And in the struggle, the picture opens up and draws you into a much deeper analysis.

Fecking hell.

Interspersed in this tug-of-war is Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards) alternatively hilarious and mournful dialogue, deeply rooted in the Irish experience, with its strange and compelling fixation on conflict, routine, simplicity, and the Church.

A gem I wanted to hate.

On HBOMax.

Gritty New York City 70s films hold a special place in my heart because my father took me to the theater to see them when I was very, maybe too, young. He had a great way of asking what movie you wanted to see, and then when you picked something age-appropriate like Herbie The Love Bug, he would just say, “No. We’re going to see this.” And off to The Seven Ups or The Laughing Policeman you went. I suspect he just went through the motions of giving you a choice hoping he could get a twofer, seeing a movie he wanted to see and having you actually hit upon the same thing.

If nothing good was out, we watched a lot of these pictures at his apartment, sharing a bowl of candy corn.

I was never very disappointed to have a Disney film vetoed by my Dad.  I was nine or ten years old and I was drinking in the likes of Serpico, Death Wish, and The French Connection, which introduced me to the hellscape of New York City, so different from my own suburban enclave. Throw in some other New York City pictures that offered more complicated themes, like Klute, and the Big Apple seemed even more foreign and forbidding.

The experience could be disorienting. After all, I was watching Jane Fonda fake an orgasm but didn’t know what a call girl was or what exactly she was faking. But it was such a rush and a privilege, something we shared that really wasn’t transferable to anybody else. I mean, I couldn’t really tell kids in my fifth grade class about Dog Day Afternoon.

For me, the best and most accessible of these pictures was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I think my father agreed. From the beginning notes, a frenetic, jazzy David Shire score, the city translates musically as a haphazard mess of a place where anything can happen. In the space of 15 minutes, you’re introduced to four hijackers of, of all things, a New York City subway train, their hostages, and every sort of New York City bureaucrat, from the mayor all the way down to the weathered Transit Authority Inspector Garber (Walter Matthau). To a person, every politician, cop, administrator, dispatcher, and train driver is cynical, a little bit “Not my department” lazy, obnoxious, and yet, grudgingly heroic in their ability to work in such a fucked up place. They constantly deride, yell at, and ride each other, but there is a fundamental professionalism in their banter, and when they are put to the test by an exacting master criminal with a plan (Robert Shaw), there is something noble about their efforts. Unlike the feeble and mincing bureaucrats of Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, these folks are simply too harried and put-upon to bother with any kind of agenda, be it liberal, conservative, or something in between.  They’re just working stiffs doing the best they can and to a character, they are shockingly well fleshed out even with little dialogue. Add an entire subway car filled with all the denizens of New York City – the pimp, the prostitute, an old Jewish man, non-English speaking immigrants, a mother and her two bratty boys, early feminists, a drunk, a hippie – and the picture becomes a model in drawing characters both strongly and economically.

An example: Shaw has asked for $1 million to be assembled in 60 minutes. He tells Matthau that for every minute he is late with the dough, he’ll kill a hostage. You watch the entire city machinery lurch into action to meet the deadline, including two cops who are tasked with driving the money from the bank to the subway station. They are given a few lines as they wait for the payoff funds, and yet, I became so interested in them, when they crashed their police car trying to make time, I fretted about their fate even though the story couldn’t allow for any resolution.

And as a caper film, you’re not gonna get much better than this. I remember gripping my seat, but I can’t remember whether we were in the theater or at home on the couch. Joseph Sargent, a workmanlike director who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, keeps everything moving while the picture remains funny yet taut, and then dizzying, almost as if patterned on the runaway subway train that closes the film. When you get comfortable, he snaps you back to attention with shocking violence and the expressed terror of the hostages. 

Opening credits here, featuring Shire’s unforgettable, commanding soundtrack.   

Currently on Showtime.  And if you’re seeing Denzel Washington and John Travolta, you’re watching the godawful remake. Bail out. 

I don’t know a lot about Elvis Presley, but I’ve read enough to know that most of Baz Luhrmann’s film is distorted, if not outright fictional.  It doesn’t matter, because Elvis is a near-inconsequential figure, perhaps proven by the fact that this movie is more about Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in a fat suit) than poor, boring Elvis. Maybe Luhrmann got bored as well. I can’t say I blame him.

Watching this picture, strangely, I was reminded of Ronald Reagan. He too was a mythic, iconic figure with worshipping acolytes. And as his career wound down and he lapsed into senility, a writer, Edmund Morris, sought to pen the definitive Reagan biography. Morris, however, was stymied by what he perceived as Reagan’s banality, his simplicity, and so, for the book, was forced to invent an American-born Edmund Morris, who as Reagan’s contemporary followed “Dutch” from his near-poverty childhood to Hollywood to the presidency. Here, it feels like Luhrmann realized that Elvis is a dud, so he re-created Parker as Elvis’ dark half, the grotesque sidekick who can provide insight into a wisp. It’s a game effort, but it fails.  

While the picture is admittedly visually arresting, you soon realize several things.

  1. It’s not so much a movie as a series of trailers stitched together. Eye-popping vignettes that, for a time, divert you from the tropes and the utter lack of any character development.
  2. The picture is about 45 minutes too long and repeats the same scene, over and over again. Elvis is an impossibly beautiful, mesmerizing near-wax doll with swiveling hips. He is wooed by wily carnival barker Parker. Elvis gets famous. Then Parker reminds Elvis that it’s all about the money.  Elvis occasionally strays out of his lane. Parker reminds him, again, that it’s all about the money. Elvis quickly gets back in line to keep the money flowing in. Then he strays again, modestly. Parker reminds him that it’s all about the money. And then Elvis does the financially sound thing, but soon, he’s bucking just a bit. Parker reels his boy back in, time after time, and when things are at their most dicey, the Colonel says, “we are the same, Elvis, you and I” (an actual awful line). And Elvis gets back to doing what he does best, making and spending fat stacks of cash.
  3. Luhrmann tries to sell Elvis as a tragic figure who was killed by his overwhelming love for his fans, rather than his affinity for the cash to keep him in deep fried hollowed out loaves of Italian bread stuffed with bananas, bacon and peanut butter.
  4. Just as Austin Powers buried the super-campy version of James Bond, I thought Dewey Cox buried this kind of hackneyed testament. Not so.

Biopics often fall into the same traps.  Hagiography, over-dramatization of mundane events, ridiculous suggestion of significant social impact.

But rarely do they present dullards as their subjects. Here, when you strip away all the glitz, all the quick cuts, all the visual tricks in Luhrmann’s bag, you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that Elvis Presley was a dummy, and that he was manipulated by no Svengali, but rather, someone just a little bit smarter than The King.

The lure of Steve McQueen is a steely resolve that doesn’t need a lot of explanation.  McQueen is the Cooler King, driven by an unarticulated obsession with escape. Or Frank Bullitt, even-tempered yet resolute as he doggedly figures out a conspiracy while courting Jackie Bissett (who, of course, wants to know what’s ticking . . . . up there). The Sand Pebbles, Papillon, The Getaway, The Magnificent Seven, Nevada Smith . . . all pretty much the same guy, with some slight moderation on the irony-to-darkness meter. Always something hidden, a mix of detached bemusement, determination and code.

In The Cincinnati Kid, that’s who we are promised, but the film is so bare bones and uninvolving, it only succeeds in exhibiting how skeletal McQueen can actually be. 

He’s a hot shit stud poker player who gets his chance at the top man (Edward G. Robinson) and there is a little skullduggery afoot before and during their epic showdown on the felt.  Some of it is business (Rip Torn and Karl Malden vie for his loyalty), some of the heart (child-like Tuesday Weld offers love, voluptuous Ann Margret her vixen’s hips), and none of it is interesting.  The Weld-McQueen union is hollow, the Margret-McQueen coupling inexplicable (she oozes, McQueen snoozes), and the shenanigans between Torn and Malden are pedestrian.

Only Robinson, as an aging card player tiring of every young buck who wants to take him on, offers some shading and intellect.

This is a sleepy rip-off of The Hustler.             

Paul Schrader’s second screenplay, Taxi Driver, was his masterpiece. Robert DeNiro’s ticking time bomb Vietnam vet then gave way to William Devane’s ticking time bomb Vietnam vet in the underrated Rolling Thunder.  Spare, steely scripts followed, including Blue Collar, Hardcore, Raging Bull, The Mosquito Coast, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction and Bringing Out the Dead, good quality, but all sharing the same character – loners, tortured souls, beleaguered by their pasts and/or alienation in their presents.  If you put Schrader at the helm, even of material he didn’t write (Autofocus, The Comfort of Strangers) still bears his solitary strain.

Though I really can’t explain this one:

Regardless, The Card Counter is very subpar Schrader. Oscar Isaac is an Iraq War veteran who has a deep dark secret. Upon his release from military prison, he becomes a card counter and poker player, traveling from casino to casino.  He is confronted with an opportunity for redemption (offered by the listless Tye Sheridan) and love (in the form of Tiffany Haddish, who seems a little confused as to what she is doing here), and it all goes rather poorly.

Isaac is the best thing about this pretentious, pointless, somnolent, uneven mess, but he is given the near-impossible task of voicing over such pearls as the essence of card counting:

It was in prison I learned to count cards . . . The count is based on a high low system. High cards, ten, jack, queen, king have a value of minus one. If they are depleted, player’s advantage goes down. The low cards, two, three, four, five, six have a value of plus one. The seven, eight and nine have no count value. The player keeps track of every card and calculates the running count. Then the player arrives at the true count, which is the running count divided by the decks remaining. For example, if the running count is plus nine and there are four and a half decks remaining, nine over four and a half gives you a true count of plus two. As true count increases, the player’s advantage increases. The idea is to bet little when you don’t have the advantage and proportionately more when you do.      

Thank God Schrader didn’t have Isaac work on carburetors in prison.

The end makes no sense, but if you make it there, you won’t be better for it.

On HBO.

Hardworking scout and would-be NBA assistant coach Adam Sandler (Stanley Sugarman) finds himself on the outs with his employer, the Philadelphia 76ers, after the owner (Robert Duvall) dies and Sugarman becomes enamored with an unknown street hoops player in Spain.  Duvall’s son, Ben Foster, who always resented Sugarman’s relationship with his Pop, revokes Sugarman’s elevation to assistant coach and shuns the unicorn Spaniard (real NBA player Juancho Hernangomez) Sugarman has discovered.

What follows is an unoriginal but entertaining sports drama. Nothing trailblazing, but filled with enough good things to elevate the material, such as–.

1. Scads of NBA stars, with speaking and/or playing cameos.  If you’re an NBA fan, this is right in your wheelhouse.

2. Sandler, who, when he is not yukking it up in mostly awful comedies with his pals, can surprise you with a raw vulnerability (Uncut Gems, Funny People, Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories).

3. An acceptance of sports tropes that borders on reverential immersion.  Stanley has a deep dark secret about his playing days, Hernangomez needs a daddy, and daddy gets his hijo in shape with consistent runs up a Philly hill (to be fair, they do reference Rocky, but still) and the longest workout montage in film history (it practically has an intermission). Damned if it doesn’t work.

4. Hernangomez, who has some acting chops, and is surprisingly affecting as a young fish-out-of-water.

There are problems.  Sugarman’s secret is insufficiently recapitulated, his family dynamic is too cute by half, and Hernangomez is tarnished and his stock devalued because he had an assault conviction in Spain (a fight with his daughter’s mother’s boyfriend).

Ha!  Not in this NBA.

It should have been an attempted murder.

Of his father! 

I’ve done much worse with just under 2 hours.  On Netflix.

The Mona Lisa of Stupid, a film so generic and irrepressibly cliche’ the never-fail motor of Tom Cruise almost fails to drive it.

Almost.

I liked it but I’m not proud of it. It is not the peak of genre nor does it defy it. It’s as insipid as elevator music, as banal as a modern country song, as predictable as pollen every spring.

I liked it because Tom Cruise willed it to be so.

I liked it in spite of the following

1) Bavaria appears to be the next potentially lethal nuclear power (again, homogenization and studied inoffensiveness to such a degree that the closest we get to “bad guys” live in Von Trapp territory)

2) The portrait at Val Kilmer at his funeral appears to have been made at Spencer Gifts


3) Every scene with Cruise and Jennifer Connelly is shot-for-shot a Kay Jeweler’s commercial.

4) The strafing run that serves as the centerpiece of the movie is the same strafing run in Star Wars and yes, a version of “the force” is used.

5) Cruise has many gifts. Chemistry with the opposite sex is not one of them. His post-coital moment with Connelly suggests they just engaged in a perfunctory bout of Wordle (K-I-S-S-Y).

Also, one might ask, if Val Kilmer, who cannot speak, was invited to reprise his role as Iceman, whither Kelly McGillis? She explains–

“I mean, I’m old and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about.”

Hmmm. Connelly plays a bar owner.

I ask, who is more bar owner-ish?

 Alas.


Per usual, Olivia Coleman is transfixing, and the film is almost a master class on how to construct a psychological thriller. It is hard to believe it is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature.  

Sadly, the film is not a psychological thriller. Rather, it’s a psychological character study of a middle aged woman and the choices she made as a young mother and professional. Coleman is a college professor on holiday in Greece, and during her stay, we cover the source of her disaffection from her two adult daughters, her kinship with a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who is clearly in maternal and familial crisis, and her inner turmoil at her own pathological selfishness and insecurity. It is the latter issue upon which the film turns. It is also its undoing, for while each flashback gives us greater insight as to her personality and her current state, it does not quite articulate why she does a particularly loony thing, a looniness made loonier by how she resolves the lunacy. Spoilers follow. 

In her twenties, Coleman was driven mad by her own demanding daughters, so much so she abandoned them for several years, for the arms of an adoring colleague and a passionate affair. She eventually returned, but the coldness in her manner and guilt over her actions is evident years later, on holiday, when she encounters Johnson in similar conflict.

Gyllenhaal stacks the deck. The entirety of what we see of Coleman’s children in flashback and Johnson’s daughter in the present is wildly unflattering. The girls are not only obnoxious, but incessant, obtrusive and maddening. I may be having a generational problem here, because I cannot imagine such behavior being countenanced for a second, either growing up or when my daughter was that age, but perhaps Gyllenhaal was making a statement on the tyranny of children. 

Regardless, Coleman becomes a confidante to Johnson but she also rather cruelly forces her into kinship by hiding the child’s beloved doll. In doing so, she takes a demanding child, who is already on the last nerve of the harried Johnson, and makes her a devil. Coleman can see this and either she wants to punish the child or she is leveraging the heightened distress of the brat to wheedle her way into Johnson’s trust. Either way, loony tunes. 

The film pretty much ends with Coleman admitting to the crime, and Johnson, naturally, looking past any connection the two had established to conclude that Coleman is, indeed, a kook. 

Which is undeniable and renders the layered and patient build-up pointless, a shame, because the film was meticulously crafted to go somewhere better. 

This is one of those pictures where the 98% Rottentomatoes.com score from the critics and the 48% score from the audience makes great sense. Fix me in the latter camp. I kept waiting for the murder to happen. 

Which reminds me of when I saw Monster’s Ball in the theater and an unimpressed man behind me was getting get shushed by his wife until finally, he declared he was leaving “unless there was motherfuckin’ monsters coming soon.” Then Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry had their steamy love scene and he was temporarily assuaged.

On Netflix.