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3 stars

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.    

Amazon.com: Nobody [DVD] : Various, Various: Movies & TV

“From the writer of John Wick . . .”

The film is John Wick, all the way down to its inexhaustible army of Russian pawns offered for slaughter. Instead of a laconic Keanu Reeves, we get a little less laconic and just a hair more put-upon Bob Odenkirk (the play against type is pretty cool). Still, while the film offers a massively high body count and is a little bloodier, it is pretty much the same as Wick minus the underworld mumbo-jumbo.

I’ve expended 2 hours in less fruitful pursuits. On HBO Max.

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.

The Way We Were (Columbia, 1973). Half Sheet (22" X 28"). Romance.. | Lot  #51476 | Heritage Auctions

Redford: “I don’t think we’re going to make it, Katie.”
Close up on the incandescent Katie (Barbra Streisand).

23 Reasons "The Way We Were" Featured The Best Romance Of All Time | Barbra  streisand, Barbra, Love movie

So, I caught this the other day and at 57 years of age, I know I have seen parts, but can’t remember if I ever saw the entire picture. There’s something nifty about a competent, charming old Hollywood love story with two big beautiful stars. I forgot how vibrant and carnal Streisand is and what a huge imprint she makes. Robert Redford mostly stays out of her way (as she says of his book, Hubbell “stands back”) and looks magnificent in a Navy uniform or a tennis outfit.

You know these two cannot exist outside of her apartment, but watching them try to cram their dissonant personalities into Hubbell’s pre-existing society life is excruciating, as is Katy’s need to control him. Streisand is so destructive whenever she is with Hubbell’s WASPy friends, her insecurity can’t be masked. But you root for her. Knowing. As if you’re rooting for the Hindenburg.

After they come out together as a couple, the Protestant golden boy and the radical Jew, Redford upbraids her after a public tantrum at a cocktail party: “Whenever something happens, it doesn’t happen to you personally!” He is met immediately by her desire to be alone with him, to get him out of there. Because Katie feels she is undeserving of someone like Hubbell, she can only feel equal and worthy as his sole companion, lover and tutor. She knows she’s the oddball, and she’ll always be the oddball, and her hurt resonates.

The film gets a little contrived when they leave college and their love nest in World War II-era New York City and move to Hollywood, and then, slow and clunky.  They jam in a baby that is quickly dispensed with and then, the final scene, where the divorced Redford and Streisand reunite on the streets of New York (talk of their daughter is short; one suspects Hubbell may have gotten out of paying child support).

But it’s a sweet movie.

Side note: my oldest friend Larry caught me singing the title song and razzed me unmercifully for singing, “Memories, like the corners of my eye.”

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.

Twilight (1998 film) - Wikipedia
Still of The Night: Amazon.fr: Meryl Streep, Roy Scheider, Jessica Tandy,  Joe Grifasi, Sara Botsford, Richmond Hoxie, Rikke Borge, Josef Sommer,  Irving Metzman, Larry Joshua, Randy Jurgenson, Robert Benton, Meryl Streep,  Roy

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.

Both on Amazon Prime.

What a strange find on Amazon Prime. A 1970s black comedy with John Huston playing the Joseph Kennedy character and Jeff Bridges playing Bobby, if Bobby was sweet tempered and had no political ambitions after the death of his brother. Of course, this is not the Kennedys, but the Kegans, and little brother Bridges is swept up into a re-investigation of his half brother’s assassination after a lone gunman has been fingered by the equivalent of the Warren Commission. In essence, Bridges goes on a dangerous wild goose chase (egged on by his father, who hopes this will propel the son into heroism and political fortune) to find the real powers behind the killing, after a second shooter confesses.

The film is absurdist, and doesn’t really work as either a comedy or a thriller. But uneven as it is, you have to be somewhat in awe of its ambition. The rumor is that the Kennedy family was none too pleased with the feature back when it had the power to squelch it, but the film is so uneven, it likely didn’t need any opposition from the dynasty. Bridges is winning, and Huston is a gas as the corrupt, sybarite of a patriarch, and the whole thing is best when it is trippy.  Worth the time.  

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.

 

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 this sex tape queen (not covered in this light-hearted film).

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.

Richard Jewell (film) - Wikipedia

The good: Clint Eastwood makes the decision to keep the story focused almost exclusively on Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a simple and decent man unjustly accused of the Olympic Park bombing when, in fact, his vigilance saved lives. Eastwood makes us privy to Jewell’s desires (to be in law enforcement, to be respected, to be “the man”) and then dramatizes how those desires are perverted to indict him.  Jewell is vilified by the press and the government as a wannabe hero, a fat, dumb rent-a-cop who naturally, would plant the bomb he “discovered” as a short-cut to his dreams of glory.  As Jewell is maligned, he is physically encircled, unable even to walk his dog, work or see his friends, such is the suffocating press of the media and the FBI.  And his loving relationship with his mother (Kathy Bates) is cast as yet another pathetic failure, a mama’s boy living at home in his 30s. Oh the fun Jay Leno had.

But Eastwood doesn’t give us a polemic or a martyr, just a character study of a man whose presumptions about what is right and wrong are peeled from him in the small apartment he shares with his mother, the place that eventually becomes their cage, and after the inevitable search warrant, a bare, claustrophobic and violated cage at that.

The performances are stellar.  Hauser is so earnest, raw and authentic that I almost suspected Eastwood had cast a skilled non-actor, to better effect than in The 15:17 to Paris. Bates is everybody’s mother, and her torment as she endures the destruction of her baby boy is heart-rending. Sam Rockwell, as the outraged but seemingly in-over-his head local yokel attorney, stands in for the audience, shaking his head as his client is pilloried.

The not-so-good: The villains are the FBI (represented here in the form of a composite FBI agent played by John Hamm) and the media (spearheaded by a tough talking, ambitious and unethical Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter played by Olivia Wilde). Hamm and his team jump to conclusions after failing to find other viable suspects, and in a case of confirmation bias, settle on Jewell as the bomber without a shred of physical or corroborating evidence.  Wilde fucks Hamm to get the scoop and then outs Jewell, after which the rest of her profession piles on.

Eastwood unnecessarily stacks the deck.  It’s not outrageous, like Sully’s portrayal of the NTSB, and the FBI and the press did act egregiously (if you have any doubt about that, read this). But their excesses do not require the filmic equivalent of blood dripping from their lips. I won’t go so far as to say that the Hamm character twirls his mustache, but he is so simplistically certain it strains credulity. The Wilde character is even more cartoonish, and worse, her performance is outlandishly unconvincing.

There was some controversy over her portrayal, given that the film clearly shows Wilde trading sex for the information, which appears to be conjecture at best.  Normally, I would not hold such an assumption against the movie, but this is a picture about defamation of character, so it should have been more scrupulous.

That said, if Eastwood had not included the sex-for-scoop scene, we would have been denied Wilde’s cringy watusi (boiled down, she declares it is sexist to criticize her character for giving up her body to Hamm when no one is criticizing the Hamm character for taking it and anyways, script be damned, the characters had a pre-existing sexual relationship!) Wilde’s post-film performance is a hell of a lot better than the one she gave on screen.

This is a good, flawed picture.