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.    

One of the best westerns I’ve seen, a medium cool, richly-layered drama that begs the question: where do old gun men go to die? The answer limits a lot of what I can say about this picture, but it is anchored by world-weary Tim Blake Nelson and sauced nicely by the ever-interesting Stephen Dorff (resurrected after True Detective, Season 3).  What starts as a simple matter of competing interests and moral codes morphs into an increasingly taut mystery interwoven with a solid shoot ‘em up, one of those clusterfucks where, given the terror and adrenaline of the moment as well as the limitations of the weaponry, most people miss.

This is not the kind of vehicle you expect from the writer-director of Super Zeroes (“Two loser brothers and their simpleton roommate’s lives are forever changed when a mysterious meteor strikes their house”), but Potsy Ponciroli delivers the goods in this tale of fear of the past, secrets and loyalty.

One of the best of the year.

At 98 minutes, a Godsend. Currently on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Showtime.

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.

Nicholas Braun as Derrek, Riley Keough as Stefani, Taylour Paige as Zola and Colman Domingo as X in director Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” Cr: Anna Kooris/A24

In 2016, Janicza Bravo wrote and directed one of the better entries for the TV series Atlanta, where the two black protagonists must negotiate their fraught relationship while enduring a bizarre Juneteenth party thrown by a wealthy couple, he, white and cluelessly solicitous, she black and protective of her status.

The party is unsurprisingly surreal.

The episode is bitterly funny and arch, but Bravo is hemmed in by the room, one that gets more claustrophobic as the tenuous couple try to hold it together.

With Zola, Bravo is unrestrained, and the result is a dizzying, frenetic, trippy After Hours-esque black comedy nightmare, one based on a real life 148-tweet thread about a trip a Detroit stripper took to Florida with another stripper named Jessica.

Opening line” “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

The film is about feel, specifically, the texture of an ill-advised road trip that has gone horribly wrong.  The characters are hilarious, but they are as much pinballs as people (one of the few weaknesses; it’s easier not to care about their plight). In Bravo’s hands, the curves and jolts just keep coming, though she occasionally slows the action so the main stripper and poorest of the decision makers (Taylour Paige) can almost get her bearings. Bravo is so technically adept, these parts of the film play exactly like the part of a rollercoaster where the car deaccelerates on a curve, and then, zoom. You’re off again.

The film sports an innovative montage sequence, strange local rituals (her Florida is the land of “Florida Man” without even mentioning him), and the cellphone as arteries, veins and lungs to modern dimwits. I feel like I missed half of it and want to take the ride again. But what I saw was totally engrossing and I often laughed out loud for as long as I had time.

Bravo’s talent is undeniable and will likely be expended on the next Marvel franchise, Dr. WeirdButt of the Multiverse.

On Hulu.

The Last Duel | 20th Century Studios

Ridley Scott makes damn fun pictures, and his historical films are some of his most enjoyable. However, when he gets too wrapped up in the visuals, he often loses the thread of story, as with Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven, sumptuous, beautiful, and utterly uninvolving period pieces.

Of course, his triumph is Gladiator, a CGI-infused, sweaty swashbuckling Roman sausage fest, and to answer Russell Crowe, yes, we were entertained.

I declare that I have been entertained yet again. The Last Duel is stunning to look at, standard for Scott (it almost feels like a Rick Steves French castle fantasy tour), but also involving, adroitly tiptoeing the line of serious and playful.

The story is simple. We are in France, Normandy, in the Middle Ages. Two knights (stolid, humorless and blunt Matt Damon and dashing, conniving Lothario Adam Driver) spend a great deal of those Ages bringing heavy swords down on the heads of their enemies, intriguing at court, and eventually, becoming bitter enemies over property disputes and Driver’s influence with a more powerful knight (Ben Affleck). Their enmity reaches boiling point when Driver is accused of raping Damon’s wife (Jodie Comer). The story, based on a non-fiction book, is told through three vantage points: that of Damon, Driver, and Comer.

You may want to stop reading here, as this has just recently been released on HBO, and spoilers will follow.

We live every scene through the eyes of each protagonist. Sometimes, they match up, sometimes there are minor variations, and other times, the recollections are night and day. But the devil is in the details, and some of the differences are quite revealing. The play and import of comparison is one of the niftier aspects of the film.

The picture also has a notable feminist bent, not surprising, given the subservient nature of women at the time and the #MeToo influence during its making. But screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Can You Ever Forgive Me), Damon and Affleck, if not always subtle, are not heavy-handed and avoid the dour and instructive. In fact, the societal inquiry as to whether Comer could become pregnant via unpleasurable sex/rape is an intriguing line (if memory serves me, not too long ago, a Missouri Senate candidate torpedoed his own bid because he suggested that a woman could not become pregnant through rape).

The entire endeavor is thrilling, nail-biting, and then, because Ridley Scott is Ridley Scott, muscular, bloody and satisfactory.

Damon, who I have raved about for years as the industry’s most underrated actor (criminally ignored in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and Contagion), again delivers. After his performance in Stillwater, when, oh when, will he be properly rewarded for his performances? Driver is commanding, and as he showed in Marriage Story, there is a dark pit just underneath his easy bonhomie. Comer is often beautifully vulnerable and you feel for her right off.

But, and hear me out, Affleck near steals the picture as Driver’s sybarite patron, a man who enjoys needling Damon no end, almost as much as his wine and his orgies. Seriousness is tedium to him, and while you are supposed to sympathize with Damon, Affleck is so delicious that at times, you are swayed by his pinpoint cruelty (“He’s no fucking fun!” he kvetches to Driver). But it’s more than a foppish turn; Affleck’s prince knows the kind of harm Damon, with his unyielding sense of honor, can pose to Driver, and he does his best to ward him off.

After a little too long for my taste, the film ends in a brutal battle to the death, gripping and by no means telegraphed in terms of the victor. And while, given its feminist inclinations, it could’ve ended with some kind of solemn tut tut message for all of us (the “Medieval Epic About Believing All Women” reviews were as plentiful as predictable), instead, Scott gives us a weepy and happy Huzzah!

The Tragedy of Macbeth' Apple TV+ Review: Stream It or Skip It?

Joel Coen’s stark, bleak, black-and-white world of Scotland is discomfiting, eerie and arresting, immediately drawing your eye to it. As the characters emerge from the shadows, their agendas become apparent, that of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) being the foulest. Washington is capable, and as his descent into suspicion and madness progresses, he fully occupies the role. When revenge comes for him, he is lost and distracted, fending off portents and omens and a clever and novel rendition of one witch as three (a terrifying, freakishly limber Kathryn Hunter). Yet, he is still ferocious. I very much enjoyed how Washington played Macbeth, tortured and brooding but still lethal, even as his conversation becomes one largely with himself.

Better, Coen never lets the language become turgid in the mouths of the actors nor an obstacle to the story. You are carried along with genuine feeling for the fates of the protagonists, even though you know them in advance.

However, there are issues, the primary one being pace. Coen is almost too expeditious and the film zips along at 1:45 minutes. As my daughter rightly pointed out, more time should have been devoted to the persuasion and seduction of Macbeth. As it is, his objections feel perfunctory, and it is here Washington is weakest. Similarly, I thought Lady Macbeth’s descent into guilt-ridden madness was also rushed.  She is the progenitor of the conspiracy, and her frustrations at Macbeth’s missteps and then mental breakdown still reflect a woman who is totally in command, or at least, strategically keeping it together for her increasingly unstable husband. And then, next time we see her, she’s a total wackadoodle. Given Coen’s nifty expansion of Ross (Alex Hassell) from mere messenger to sociopathic near-puppet master, there is no reason he could not have given us more of Macbeth cajoled and Lady Macbeth degenerating.

Also, while I liked Stephen Root’s brief scene as Porter, it’s one of those Shakespeare adaptation conceits where someone cameos and really lets us have it, which is discordant.

Very good. Currently streaming on Apple.

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.

Tick, Tick...Boom | Official Website | November 19 2021

Let’s first start with Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which was at its very best, catchy and urgent, and at its worst, cheezy, inbred, bombastic and cloying.  Its’ influence, the greater rock/popification of Broadway, is undeniable, if not universally acclaimed.  But it is what it is, and I always found it to be meh.  

As did the South Park guys.

tick tick  . . . BOOM! is Larson’s solo work just before Rent, as directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and tells Larson’s story as he tries to get a musical off-the-ground.

The picture is a love letter to theater and theater kids. It is populated by scads of Broadway regulars and icons, in what comes off as a tribute to Larson, who tragically passed away from an aortic aneurysm before his triumph Rent opened.  

The film’s exuberance is near-irresistible. As Larson, Andrew Garfield is so winning, so all-encompassing in his love and enthusiasm for the character and the numbers, that even without Miranda’s clever and engaging staging, he would have carried this thing on his back and across the goal line.      

Of greater moment is the dawning that his one-man musical before Rent was better, in total. The numbers are strong, less gloppy and a little more introspective, and Larson has a better handle on communicating his own artistic struggle than in conveying the plight of the East Village bohemians. For example, this clever, Sondheim-esque ditty is better than most of Rent.

The film suffers from some of the same moral simplicity and noxious casualness that Rent evinced at its worst (who can stand La Vie Boheme when all the self-satisfied, insular riff-raff take up an entire table and “never buy” – Fuck you, waiter! We’re artists!) but it is brief and unobtrusive. In tick tick . . . BOOM!, Larson writes a funny, fantasy piece about escaping the miseries of the City and all of its indignities. In Rent, he has a bunch of pretty, smug faces ennoble the crud.

Great fun. On Netflix.