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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.

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I don’t think that there is a series of movies I enjoy more. Like The Trip (to the North of England), and The Trips to Spain and Italy, taking a road sightseeing and culinary tour with Rob Brydon Steve Coogan is edifying and hilarious. More than a travelogue, Michael
Winterbottom’s films are studies in culture, cuisine and history, through the eyes of two very smart and silly narcissists, the kind of friends who probably only see each other once or twice a year but effortlessly fall into the same knowing patter. It is easy to settle in to watch their conversation and one-up imitations (both actors are skilled impressionists and constantly battle each other with competing bits).  Each man is the only important audience member.   Restaurant and hotel staff and lunch and dinner guests run the gamut from confused to overwhelmed to a tad put-off. However, as the films have progressed, Winterbottom increasingly allows family and romantic situations to enter, often with poignant results, particularly here. Beautiful film.

The Vast of Night (2019) - IMDb
This debut film by Andrew Patterson blew me away, reminding me of Blood Simple (Coen Brothers), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell), Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier) and The Babdoook (Jennifer Kent).  The trajectories of the careers of these first or near-first time writer-directors varies, but the skill and care taken in their early work is astounding.   I can’t speak much about Patterson’s film, which centers on a New Mexico disc jockey and phone operator who stumble on a strange frequency over their wires in the 1950’s, because it is a “whodunit/whatisit” to its very core.  But Patterson’s assured manner heightens tension and drives a narrative in an almost Hitchcockian style, and his attention to detail is impressive.  Hair-raising, creepy, but never overt, you feel as if you’re another denizen of the town, with Patterson letting you in on the mystery.

The film has its flaws (tracking shots that at times feel gratuitous, a lead who speaks rat-a-tat tat with a cigarette in his mouth which at one point almost made me turn on English subtitles, an ending that almost feels stubborn in it anticlimactic lack of convention), but now is the time to buy stock in Patterson.  Currently on Amazon Prime.

The Way Back (2020 film) - Wikipedia

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.

 

Emma (2020 film) - Wikipedia

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.

Relevant.

On Amazon Prime.

Amazon.com: California Split POSTER (11" x 17"): Posters & Prints

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.

 

From Boston to Concord, in the Footsteps of 'Little Women' | VogueConfession: 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.

These are minor nits.  This is a splendid picture.

 

How Jennifer Lopez's fashion inspired the real-life 'Hustlers ...

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.

Fighting With My Family (DVD) - Walmart.com - Walmart.com

Cute, funny, and sweet paint-by-numbers comedy about a British wresting family (headed by a hilarious Nick Frost and an unrecognizable Lena Headey/Cersei Lannister) whose daughter (Florence Pugh) gets her shot at the big league – the WWE.  While she goes to Miami to train under the tutelage of an uncompromising Vince Vaughan, her brother and wrestling partner is left behind, sparking an emotional crisis.  Apparently, this is a true story.  The Pugh character is none other than—
WWE star Paige on sex-tape humiliation: 'I don't wish that for anyone'

Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (the Gestapo chief in Jo Jo Rabbit).

There is nothing new here, but it’s crisp and has its moments, and the characters are winning.  On Hulu.