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4 stars

Let us stipulate at the outset that pre-CGI disaster movies sit in the softest spot in my heart. When I was a kid, you couldn’t keep me away from them.  The first movie I saw without a parent was The Poseidon Adventure (’72) at The Avalon on Connecticut Avenue. My mom had a small gift shop appended to that theater, so they let me and a friend come in to see whatever we wanted. In that dark movie house, sitting with Jimmy Sullivan, jujifruits in hand, I was IN that dank, doomed ship and with that besieged group led by another cool priest (Gene Hackman, though he never rivaled Jason Miller in The Exorcist).  With poor Roddy McDowell and his shattered and bloody kneecap and Stella Stevens, Ernie Borgnine’s tough talking, busty wife, who had the moxie to tell the heavier Shelly Winters that, um, no, she’s going into the tube first:  “I’m going next. So if ole’ fat ass gets stuck, I won’t get stuck behind her.”  I’m 9 years old.  That was something.  Throw in pre-Nancy Drew (Pamela Sue Martin).  

I was lost to it all.

I inhaled everything that came next.  Earthquake (’74) (in Sensurround!)  Oh my God, Charlton Heston, don’t you dare give up Genevieve Bujold to jump in the sewers and save a doomed Ava Gardner! 

All the Airports (’70, ’75, ’77, and ’79).  I loved George Kennedy and later, when I saw him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I was shocked that such a gruff teddy bear could play such an awful villain. 

You can throw in The Hindenburg (’75) as well, though I kind of knew how that was going to end.       

I even went to the theater to see The Swarm (’78). Killer bees are, apparently, an ever-present threat to nuclear reactors. 

Then there were the disasters created by bad men (not just the poor salesman who blew up the airliner in Airport because he needed to leave his wife an insurance payoff).

Juggernaut (’74) – an ocean liner is rigged to blow (red wire or green wire!!!) and the bomb squad, led by Richard Harris, has to be dropped on the ship in rough seas to defuse the bomb. I’m still haunted by the scene of a member of the bomb squad missing the ship and just being . . . . left.  Liners cannot turn around.

Black Sunday (’77) – a blimp threatens The Super Bowl, helmed by the deadly serious Robert Shaw and an intriguing Marthe Keller (first German I ever had a crush on)

Rollercoaster (’77) – Tim Bottoms blowing up my favorite rides, including King’s Dominion’s The Rebel Yell (since re-christened The Rebel Scum)

Okay, that’s a long preamble.  The Towering Inferno has it all. Let me count the ways.

1)  Stars.  Yuge stars!  Bigly stars!  McQueen. Newman. Dunaway. Holden. Come on.

2)  OJ Simpson as a good guy.  He knows the security is for shit.  He lets McQueen know the place is a tinderbox, and then he saves a deaf woman.  And a cat.

3)  Shocking deaths.  They kill Robert Wagner and all he did was sleep with his secretary in the upper offices after foolishly having the phones cut off for privacy (by the way, I think his secretary is 10 years older than Wagner, which is pretty advanced).  Jennifer Jones seems as safe as any character can be, and then, boom, she just falls out of elevator and they bounce her off the structure.  My Lord, the genial bartender who was later a regular on Barney Miller, he gets crushed.

4) Moments of great bravery. By the innocent and even those a little bit responsible.  Guess what?  In 1974, it was still women and children first.  Even Richard Chamberlain, Holden’s shit-bird son-in-law who took kickbacks on the crappy wiring and dysfunctional sprinkler system, waited to try and jump the escape line after the women and children were evacuated. Holden ain’t clean, but he rises to the occasion announcing, much like a ship captain, that he will go down with the skyscraper.  Robert Vaughan is a United States senator and he buys it trying to keep Chamberlain from jumping the line.   And Wagner’s attempt to save his secretary is akin to a singular Charge of the Light Brigade.

6)  It works. At its’ silliest (you only learn about the million gallons of water on the top of the building in the last 20 minutes), it is always watchable.     

7) Professional camaraderie.  Steve McQueen’s number two in the San Francisco police department in Bullitt was his number two in the San Francisco fire department.  

On HBO Max.

A mash up of You’ve Got Mail and Eddie and the Cruisers

Okay, not really. But kind of. Rose Byrne is a curator of the historical society in a small English seaside town, and she lives with her professor boyfriend Chris O’Dowd, whose primary passion is the work and life of an alt rock phenom of the 80s, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Hawke went into hiding at the height of his underground fame, thus making him even more of an enigma and obsession for O’Dowd and like-minded fans. 

O’Dowd clearly loves Hawke more than Byrne, and his primary focus is on the blog he manages which is solely dedicated to his idol. In a fit of pique, Byrne posts a scathing review of Hawke’s work, and Hawke alights from his bunker to respond, thereby sparking an intimate long distance connection. 

To tell more would be a true spoiler. This is a charming, very funny, clever film. Byrne (the hardest working woman in pictures) is her winning self and O’Dowd painfully funny, but Hawke steals the film as the jaded, regretful but still hopeful former “star” (we are not talking David Bowie; think Jeff Tweedy, after the first two Wilco records, just disappearing). Chock full of wry observations on hero worship, the digital age, the concept of family, and intimacy.

I knocked this down half a point because Byrne has a sister who is just a little too “on” and the film ends rather abruptly.

On Amazon Prime.

Esquire Theatre

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:

MURROW

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.

PALEY

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!.

On Netflix.    

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 Babadook (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 the plot of 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 1950s, because it is a “whodunit/whatisit” to its core.  But Patterson’s assured manner heightens tension and drives a narrative in an almost Hitchcockian style (without being showy), and his attention to detail is impressive.  The film is hair-raising and creepy, but never overt; you feel as if you’re another denizen of the town, with Patterson letting you in on the mystery.

The picture 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, and 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.

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.

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.

 

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Paul Newman is ridiculous as an Apache but it’s as if he senses that fact in the first 10 minutes of the movie and just concludes, “Fuck it. I’ll just be Paul Newman.”  That’s just what he does, and thankfully,  from that point forward, all is well again in this Stagecoach-ish Martin Ritt western.

Newman and a group of misfits (including Martin Balsam doing his best Eli Wallach as a Mexican) share a stage to Bisbee and they are set upon by thieves/killers. Newman rises above the racism of his traveling companions (when they find out he is an Apache, they make him ride outside of the stage) and works to get them out of the jam.

It’s a tight script (based on Elmore Leonard story), it’s cynical, the ensemble is decently fleshed out, and it travels pretty well. 

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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.

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Rian Johnson’s (Brick, Looper) modern update to the Deathtrap/Murder on the Orient Express-style whodunnit is clever, tight, witty and consistently engaging. The wealthy family of a famous mystery author (Christopher Plummer) is suspected of having offed him at a get-together in his ornate mansion (a cop observes “Look around. The guy basically lives in a clue board!”) and the investigation centers on his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who is alternatively claimed and condescended to by the clan. The investigation is a wellspring of black humor, biting cynicism and hilarious family drama. Everyone (and everyone seems to be in this) is excellent, particularly Daniel Craig as a Southern drawling Hercule Poirot.

Two nits. First, in a mystery, having a character who is congenitally incapable of lying is an egregious cheat. If it weren’t for Johnson’s ingenious plotting, I’d have been more put off. Second, the politics are for the most part deft but also a little clunky. The family fighting about Trump was funny and authentic, with its hypocritical righty who digs Trump and treats Marta as a maid and his lefty cliche’ amping to 11 and invoking the Nazis. It was also even-handed – a leftie social justice warrior who has befriended Marta ends up being a true Judas . Still, Johnson rhetorically over-dunks on the lot of the Richie Riches at the end, which is the only misstep in what is otherwise a seamless, lively flick.