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Drama

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I’ve heard this film is essentially Taxi Driver meets a Christopher Nolan Batman, but its roots also lie in Martin Scorsese ‘s King of Comedy and even in Death Wish.  Not bad company and it shows. Todd Phillips’ vision is fully realized, there is a consistent and compelling narrative, and you can’t take your eyes off of Joaquin Phoenix.  The movie also alternates between Joker’s madness and his reality, which keeps you off balance without being gimmicky while expertly recalibrating the Joker-Batman origin story.

But the movie is also dull in stretches, thoroughly depressing, a little more politically elemental than it perhaps knows, and ultimately, chooses shock over sustenance.  Perhaps most problematic, it’s really hard to give a shit about a protagonist who, when all is said and done, is just a loon with a crazy giggle off his meds. How much fun is that?

Implicit in that last criticism is the presumption of an old fogie that even super hero villain stories should have some level of joy or whimsy. But if the future is Lex Luthor kicking a meth habit, Thanos having been molded by the cruelties of urban foster care, or Venom’s molestation at the hands of her uncle, so be it. The film has made over $1 billion globally and it leads all pictures in Oscar nominations.  Who am I to thwart progress?

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Impares Si obvium habueris senum severiorum CULO

My daughter sussed this one out early:  “This strikes me as the kind of movie your grandma would like.”

And what is there not to like for a grandma?  Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) comes from Argentina to Rome to hand in his retirement papers to Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins).  Bergoglio is modern and hip, as evidenced by his love of fútbol and ABBA, his amiability with common folk, his insistence on sitting up front next to his driver, and his constant painful wincing whenever he sees the trappings of the Catholic Church’s vast wealth (he apparently figured he’d be picked up at the Rome airport by donkey cart and taken to a Tetto Rossa Locanda to meet the pontiff).

The two spar in a dull and obvious manner, Benedict emitting conservative values like an automaton, Bergoglio interjecting with impassioned progressive rejoinders.  They watch some futbol, share a pizza, Bergoglio gives Benedict confession and then himself confesses to having been a bit of a stooge for the right wing Argentinian military junta in the 70s, and whammo – Benedict tells Bergoglio that while his prior plan was to accept the resignation and retire himself, he now sees the light of Bergoglio’s goodness and as such, rejects the resignation and insists that Bergoglio succeed him.

Unlike some, I have no objections to the fanciful nature of the picture.  The two never had such a meeting and never colluded on succession.  But hey, it’s the movies, and as long as you aren’t completely changing the arc or import of history, that’s cool by me.  Who would argue with portrayal of a fictional meeting between Nixon and Johnson?

But if you are going to make it up, you damn well better make it interesting.

“Do you know the Beatles?”

 “Yes, I know who they are,” Bergoglio responds. “Eleanor Rigby?”

“Who?” Pope Benedict asks, “I don’t know her.”

Oh my Lord.

As to the “import” of history, one story line is really quite egregious, as the film portrays Benedict as central to the cover up of molestation in the Church.  Bergoglio is, of course, horrified.  Apparently, digging ABBA and futbol and pizza can expiate any sin.

Pryce and Hopkins do deliver fine performances (they are both nominated for Oscars) but there are maybe one or two genuine moments in the picture, which could have just as easily starred a German Shepherd and a plucky mutt.

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Brad Pitt is an astronaut at an undetermined time in the future (we have commercial flights to the Moon and manned installations in Mars).  He’s cool as a cucumber and as revealed in voice over and daily psych evaluations, disconnected in a manner that barely registers physically but gnaws at him emotionally.  Oh, and he has the mother of all Daddy issues, as he is sent out to space on a mission to stop his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a Colonel Kurtz-like figure whose own journey to Neptune 25 years earlier went bad.   Jones abandoned Pitt and Pitt’s dying mother to command the endeavor.  The assumption was that Jones and crew had perished, but in fact, he’s alive and he’s causing quite a bit of trouble.

The film has one flaw, but it isn’t insignificant.  The Pitt voice overs – personal observations as to his own emotional state – are often distracting and unnecessary.  Pitt is a fine enough actor that a lot of stuff he says just becomes superfluous, and a lot of other stuff he says borders on the clumsy.  An example: “I always wanted to become an astronaut, for the future of mankind and all. At least, that’s what I always told myself. I see myself from the outside. Smile, present a side. It’s a performance, with my eye on the exit. Always on the exit. Just don’t touch me.”  When you see Pitt, you know this or you will glean it.  When it’s explicated, it loses force.  Pitt is fantastic but hobbled by the overt inner dialogue.

That said, the film is transfixing and true to its world, offering a not fully-explained but logical future for space travel, sterility meshed with utility.  It’s also visually stunning. James Gray’s (We Own the Night) world is beautiful, haunting and as evidenced in a few action sequences, lethal.

So, put the IPhone down and enjoy while you can, because they won’t be making these sorts of personal epics for much longer.

 

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Noah Baumbach’s autopsy of the dissolution of a marriage is at times too painful to watch, but do not avert your eyes because you’ll miss a beautifully rendered story. The couple, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, are authentic, their natural affinity for each other is undeniable, even in the moments of their greatest frustration, anger and disappointment. As they lawyer up and offer themselves to the vagaries of the judicial system, playing nice while providing the damaging information necessary to screw each other, they can’t shuck off the easy familiarity of their years together.  During a contentious settlement meeting with their lawyers, he agonizes over the order-in lunch menu until she takes it from him and selects his meal.  At the worst times of their break-up, he still relies on her to cut his hair.  The film is loaded with these kinds of searing and telling vignettes.

Ultimately, however, I can’t tell if the film’s greatest omission is a flaw or a merit.  While the picture opens with each character listing what they like most about the other as part of pre-divorce therapy, and you sense their mutual admiration, there seems to be nothing deeper.  We seem them as a functioning unit and close, even tender, by dint of their proximity and years.  But Baumbach never shows them in full bloom, which could mean that they never really were (a theory certainly supported by Johansson’s recitation of their meeting and union; she was essentially running from a deadening relationship) or that it just doesn’t matter, as it likely doesn’t matter in any divorce.

The film also makes you take sides, against your better judgment.  We fancy ourselves mature in our awareness that no one is at fault in a divorce, that the bad behavior preceding a break-up is evidence of the weakness of the union as opposed to villainy.  But even knowing that, you champion one or the other even as you try to maintain equanimity, making you complicit in the fight.  Driver appears to be the less adversarial, more “go along, get along” of the two, so when you see him driven to speak the unspeakable or roar, “then she wins!” to his reasonable lawyer, I was with him, just as I am sure others were with Johannson at varying times in the back-and-forth (she has read his emails to his lover, and you can see those words burning in her eyes).

This is not to say there aren’t problems.  Tonally, the picture is haphazard. Johansson’s mother and sister (Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver), for example, are James L Brooks, quirky and broad, and a court-ordered expert assigned to observe the child with Driver is distracting, creepy cat lady weird.  The lawyers (Alan Alda, Laura Dern, and Ray Liotta) bring a necessary cynicism, but are so flamboyant at times, they can feel cartoonish.  The child, an 8 year old boy, is spoiled, whiny, incompetent, cannot sleep alone, has problems pooping, can’t spell “Leggo”, find plants “scary”, doesn’t know whether the power is on or off in a lit room, and demands play time at the worst possible moments. I assume Baumbach was trying to show the progeny of a highly educated, upper middle class, artistic couple in strife, but the kid is so obnoxious, he’s a bad exemplar of what they are fighting so tenaciously for.  The child in Kramer v Kramer was obstinate and no picnic, but you didn’t recoil from him, for good reason.  As a viewer, you shouldn’t be saying to yourself, “you know, losing primary custody isn’t the worst thing.”

And the Randy Newman score is just a dreadful fit, Toy Story shoehorned into Marriage Story.

But no matter where you come down, on the performances alone, and particularly Dern’s speech on how society views men and women as parents and Driver’s lament via song, it’s well worth it.

021D93F8-A0C1-48D7-B998-A5E178118D6AFrenetic, excessive and nerve-wracking, one of those movies where you turn to your son with the “are you fucking kidding me?” look when you’re not crouched in your chair wincing. The recipient of your empathy is Adam Sandler, a New York jeweler in the diamond district, juggling a disaffected wife and three kids, a mistress thirty years his junior, and a gambling addiction.  He is perpetually robbing Peter to pay Paul and thinning the skin of his teeth as the film progresses.  This is one of a handful of serious roles for Sandler and he’s terrific (if you thought Al Pacino was terrific in Scarface – I did).  Kevin Garnett plays himself, turns in a great deal more than you’d expect from a non-actor and is particularly affecting in a scene where Sandler likens his drive to make a financial score with that of a pro athlete.

On the downside, the film is so histrionic, it’s hard to find people you can actually identify with.  You root for Sandler primarily because you want a particularly tense situation to resolve.  And the soundtrack – a blend of Vangelis and the hum of an 80’s video game arcade – is distracting, discordant, and near-unforgivable.

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A touching and heartfelt tribute to a matriarch.  Smart, deep and without an ounce of treacle, this is the holiday movie you should watch instead of the grotesque Love, Actually.  Upon hearing of the terminal cancer diagnosis for her Nai Nai (grandmother), Billi (Awkwafina), who left China when she was seven, returns from New York with her family (along with other family members from abroad) to say their goodbyes.  The twist is that, per custom, no one can reveal the diagnosis so as not to upset Nai Nai in her final months.  Indeed, Billi, a struggling student who has just been rejected for a fellowship, was specifically asked not to make the trip because her parents thought she was too emotional and incapable of adhering to the compact.

What follows is a loving and funny rendering of Billi’s family as well as her own mmersion into Chinese culture and the clash that comes with it.  First time writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature is confident and multi-layered, and her visual sense, depicting China in an almost dreamlike state, emphasizes Billi’s trepidation and confusion.  The film is also slyly funny, capturing the idiosyncrasy of family that survives no matter the time apart or the geographical separation.  One of the best of the year.

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Awfully slow and occasionally deadly dull. It’s 3.5 hours, 1.5 hours of which is trying to get Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) either to his senses or a meeting.

The length and pace, however, may be the least of the film’s problems.  The movie depicts the rise of mob killer and union boss Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his relationship with his mob sponsor (Joe Pesci) and Hoffa. The novelty is the technological ability Martin Scorsese uses to make his actors younger, but the effect is only so successful. They can only make them so young.  So, you have a 76 year-old man playing a 40 year old man who looks like a 56 year old man who has a six-year-old daughter. Worse, when they are rendered young in the face, they remain old in the body. One scene, where a digitally younger De Niro beats a man, emphasizes the point.  It looks like Bad Grandpa is delivering an ass kicking.

But perhaps the worst part of the film is the fact that there is simply no drama, no tension. Every single character is the exact same person he was from beginning to end. In Goodfellas, De Niro and Pesci were a constant force, but the drama came from watching Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco rise and then try to survive.  In Casino, the entire film centered around the significant changes to the personalities of De Niro, the bookmaker made casino king in fledgling Vegas, and Pesci, the enforcer who gets too big for his britches and in-over-his-head alone in the desert.  The history of those films was compelling, but it did not have to do all of the lifting.

Here, De Niro is the same throughout. Sociopathic, steady, soulless and somnambulant.  It does not make for enthralling viewing.  Your eyes will move to the IPhone more than once.

It looks good, though. Damn good. I’ll give it that.  And there are a few exchanges in Steve Zallian’s (Moneyball, A Civil Action) script that are subtly sharp. But it’s not nearly enough.