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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.

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.

Other than some nice, genuine moments between Rey (Daisey Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver),  pretty terrible. Perfunctory, inconsistent, soulless and enslaved to JJ Abrams’ zealous desire to wrap everything up. But it’s Christmas. Let’s focus on the good things.

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This guy (Greg Grunberg).  He plays an overweight X-Wing pilot who looks like a sitcom character.  The only thing he’s missing is a pastrami sandwich in his hand.  Reportedly, the Star Wars folks were all over Carrie Fisher to drop a few pounds for the role, yet this lard ass catches a pass?  I don’t know the other guy.  Without arms, I can’t imagine he/she/it/they are of much value.

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This guy (Mark Hamill).  He appears as a ghost to set Rey straight.  He has an uncanny resemblance to Jesus, until he speaks, and then . . . well.  Not exactly commanding.

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They’re baaaack.  Just in time for Christmas.

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Lando Calrissian and Jannah. While the chatter suggests she may be his daughter, their final scene has more a creepy, “Hey, baby, where you been all my life?” vibe.

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This guy.  Who jumps from a great height onto rock and says, “Ouch!” No lie.

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These guys.  Who follow our heroes everywhere, fortunate in the fact that they never encounter stairs.
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These guys.  Strategery continues to remain a weakness, as the entire fleet is a) lined up like planes at Pearl Harbor; b) wholly reliant on one communications device that allows them to maneuver during attack; c) leaden with exposed weapons in their underbelly that can be detonated with a few grenades, leading to destruction of the entire ship.

A7D1985B-625D-443D-8D36-B9FDE507C6FEA colossal failure, saggy, haphazard, wholly disinterested in its own mystery, and unforgivably unscary. The boys (and one girl) are back in the town of Derry because our favorite clown has returned after 27 years to feast. In order to consign him to the depths once again, they have to undergo torments/flashbacks individually and then as a group. Why is poorly explained (something about a ritual and native Americans in the nearby woods).

The script has no keys to locks, no trail of breadcrumbs, no rules and hence, holds no interest.  
The picture doesn’t hold together or tie up and drags interminably at over 2 and a half hours. On the upside, Gollum from Lord of the Rings makes an appearance, we get to see Bill Hader vomit (twice!) and true love and belief in yourself conquers all. 

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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.