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3 (out of 4)
The Dark Universe is dead – long live individual movies! So by now everyone has forgotten about The Mummy (not the Brendan Fraser one, the one with Tom Cruise, remember? he had like a blue shirt), and if you recall that 2017 embarrassment it’s for no good reason. Soon after Universal’s shared spooky-verse was supposed to include Johnny Depp in the titular role of the movie in question, the next step in the supposed franchise. Next to the 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man was always an appreciable favorite: an oddball madman undone by his own creative ambitions, a genius turned loony, misanthropic prankster. Maybe it's not what H. G. Wells was going for but as a pulpy gothic shock-treatment like many early Universal features were, the manic and now iconic vision of science gone too far was memorable fun.
After many needless follow-ups, reimaginings and remakes in the years since the 1933 inception of the unseen icon, The Invisible Man is revisioned by Leigh Whannell, who after a career built on horror’s painful sequel turnover in the Saw and Insidious franchises found some semblance of artistic purpose in Upgrade, a standout sci-fi action hybrid of late. I wish more of his palpable energy could be located in The Invisible Man, but unfortunately the story – which uses domestic abuse as the ironically conspicuous theme of a minimalist take of the premise – is entertaining before it gets a little self-congratulatory.
Psychological terror and especially feminist cinema has a place in my heart and also in the tradition of horror, and the success of The Invisible Man is lies in timeless, tasteful restraint. The film is slight but by no means exploitative, nor is it excessive in other facets like outrageous gore or pedantic politics. Though if you're a forgiving fan of Paul Verhoven's lesser work, you might be craving the more recognizable sci-fi of something like 2000's problematic but fascinating Hollow Man, it’s hard to deny 2020's fun mental games and procession of inescapable paranoia. The final twists can keep you on your toes and Elizabeth Moss is already too good for the movie star cred she will have fully inherited before the Handmaid’s days are done.
It would be nice to believe Universal is wisely opting for DC’s latest strategy and giving up entirely on duplicating Marvel’s interlocking, monopolizing tactics in favor of director-driven, distinct movies but it's too early to tell. If you want to give me the modest modern auteur versions of Bride of Frankenstein, Creature and a fresh The Wolf Man (with Ryan Gosling no less!) then…. by all means. There’s not really a rule of thumb but something tells me keeping costs low and blockbuster prospects in check will equate to swifter success.
Then again there's nothing more terrifying than cutting short the potential profits of a sleeper horror hit in the wake of an invisible disease spreading across the globe. When (but more like if) things go back to normal, Universal's scary movies will probably have the sheen of Blumhouse surrogates but will, if luck and prudence holds, be much better.
2 (out of 4)
DC’s little renaissance hasn’t gone unnoticed, nor could it have occurred at a better time. Just as the sun was beginning to set on Marvel’s indisputable empire, DC stopped mimicking and started outthinking, using the least likely moneymaker’s – Aquaman, Shazam and supervillain spin-offs – to readily revert their superhero movie empire back to the individual basis. As Wonder Woman 1984 this June should be one of the year’s highest earners, Birds of Prey enters the scene with all the fervor Margot Robbie, as star and executive producer, can commit to. The film is little more than underwhelming, barely taking the time to explore a storyline that would be suitable for a TV pilot. But the talent and budget is there, sadly saddled with a subversion-lite, fairly prudish use of an R rating.
But surprisingly, no one really cares about this movie and there’s really no reason they should. It’s fine next to Marvel's Ford-assembly-model movies, but barely exceeding Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really be considered much of an accomplishment. Birds of Prey doesn’t have any point and admits it, but isn’t much fun as compensation other than some pretty good stunts and a couple laughs. Though the band of female misfits are all eventually decently developed by the team up, they couldn’t have been scripted or edited together more awkwardly, unless we’re talking about Suicide Squad’s stupidity. I didn’t really care for Deadpool, but that movie does the meta, schizophrenic storytelling thing with more proven relish and popularity, and the sequel made better on the promise of the first. If I could tell certain moments of cute ignorance from the spots of lazy writing with Harley Quinn's movie, there would be more reason to celebrate a finely forthright feminist mini-blockbuster that doesn’t pat itself on the back or smack you with every message, a rarity in a era of increasingly fake-woke pandering.
Maybe I’m just mad that Mary Elizabeth Winstead wasn’t in every single scene I MEAN excuse me oh dear my male gaze is showing. But man, when your best stuff is generic villain crap held up by Ewan McGregor hamfisting every line with casual glee, your little spin-off is in sorry shape. Changing the title doesn’t actually change a thing. With a James Gunn-ified sort-of-sequel Suicide Squad already filming, the disposable quaintness of Birds of Prey feels even more glaring.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Literary classics prove their status by sustaining their stature rather than diminishing as years pass. Some only become immortal when cinema tries to realize their essence to both remind the acquainted and demonstrate to the unaware what was so powerful about the characters, situations and subjects in the first place.
So Little Women isn’t Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice, but Louise May Alcott’s treasured story has had many an adaptation in its day – George Cukor directed Katherine Hepburn in the 1933 version, there's one from the 50s with Elizabeth Taylor and the 1994 reiteration starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder surely stands out in today’s consciousness. Just after last year’s reviled modern take marked the 150th anniversary of the novel’s publishing, Greta Gerwig was already out tailoring the defining film version of the story – with talent like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in support, it was not shocking that her telling would play out as the absolute, unbeatable attempt. Before I use up the rest of this space as a further expression of my reverence for Gerwig, let me get rid of my gripes and point out the remote extent to which she’s sullying her bright, sunny new career.
While her romantic partner Noah Baumbach is scraping the highest artistic highs of his storytelling vitality with Marriage Story (his 10th original film in an ever-mounting, remarkably homespun career), Gerwig has already turned down the easier avenue following her tenderly crafted breakthrough debut Lady Bird in 2017. After bearing her soul with an autobiographical inception to a filmography it makes sense that she would gravitate toward recreating a famously personal near-nonfiction masterwork. But when the story movements are already laid out for you, the trimmings on top – the tastefully stylish camerawork, savory mise en scène, gorgeous Alexandre Desplat score, the uniformly superb performances – aren’t quite as meaningful as they might be in something drawn from scratch.
Still, my god, the icing overtop this proven recipe is incredibly rich and even the substance itself is excellent and flavorful in ways you would not anticpate. Gerwig has the instinct to reexamine Little Women through a deviating narrative lens, redefining the parameters and rhythms of Alcott’s reflection of her own deprived Civil War-era upbringing. The adapted text has an insistent equilibrium of whimsy and melodrama courtesy of Alcott’s crocheted realism but Gerwig’s temporal hopscotching in her script demonstrates every internal conflict of the March sisters by juxtaposing a perfect past with a faded future. The color scheme (warm hues offset by blue tones) informs this rift in time between the good old days and an uncertain present, invoking a well-illustrated nostalgia and longing.
The zig-zagging nonlinear direction takes the tale in halves and works through them diligently and thoroughly, refusing to let the unannounced transitions through adolescence fail to inform the distance between the simple, fixed memories of youth and the more immediate trepidations of early adulthood. By utilizing methodical editing as a pick to unlock the more cinematic feelings of Little Women’s endurance, Gerwig’s hand also reconsiders Alcott through her distinct emphasis on awkward, restless naturalism, giving her adaptation an accessibly modern flavor despite the beaming, excited acting and textured production and costume design. It’s not as memorable or drastic as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but Little Women finds Gerwig exercising a singular, resonant voice through a beloved feminist period template.
Until a new fashioning of Emma arrives in February, Gerwig’s classically composed drama will remain the lit-head's movie of the moment, burning with the appetite of a revisionist eye and the inherent intent of Alcott’s wit and wariness. I was worried Little Women would fail to exceed a sense of irrelevance, functioning as a vehicle for Gerwig to secure her career for safer, businesslike goals rather than artistic ones. Pleasantly, it's just about effortless to forget any hesitations while watching, though that is to say I dearly hope she formulates her own fictions as she goes forward. With a clarifying understanding and appreciation for the source, there’s nothing but the rewards of superlative adaptation to appreciate from Gerwig’s second feature. Is it even worth bringing up that Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamat, Emma Watson, Chris Cooper, Dern and Streep are without flaw? Because of course they are.
3 ½ (out of 4)
The raw vigor of the Safdie Brothers’ electric touch and Adam Sandler’s own inscrutable moxie amounts to a lustrous, New Hollywood-esque cinematic combo. The brothers drafted the screenplay with Sandler in mind early in their career, only securing the comedy legend at their Award circuit rounds a few years ago.
It’s a karmic cautionary tale about tempting fate, or at least trying to master it – like Good Time the movie is one extended tiptoe on the verge of a nervous breakdown, an actual adrenaline rush of hallucinatory colors, restless, grainy camerawork and getting caught up in the momentary hoopla of an ominous comedy-of-errors situation from hell. Uncut Gems just has a stronger sense of the dance of dialogue in the wheeling and dealing, in the congealing of monetary and existential crises, all built for sheer entertainment with a dense, overlapping structure. Like Heaven Knows What, the Safdie duo take their lowlife lead characters at face value sans condescension until their addictions – heroine, gambling, what have you – become our own concerns, thrills and despairs.
Their propensity for coarse naturalism has rarely been so convincing or visceral and Sandler just happens to be the most magnetic talent they’ve thus acquired. Actually Robert Pattinson probably has the Sand-man topped in his growing independent body of work (not to mention donning that crusading cape for Warner Brothers soon enough) but this is probably Sandler's best performance ever. Creeping out of the financial security of his most idiotic affairs to prove his range once per decade, this turn supersedes Judd Apatow's strong Funny People by miles and Uncut Gems exceeds even Punch-Drunk Love as his most well-suited, crowning dramatic turn, a perfectly written and performed movie character. Whether or not you have an opinion on Sandler's sea of silliness outside excused little classics like Happy Gilmore, this has virtually nothing in common with the Big Daddy's, Anger Management's or Jack and Jill's of the past.
Burnished in every frame with slippery splendor and scrappy intensity, Uncut Gems is at least one of the great films of the year and maybe up their in the best of the decade. It’s the faultless consummation of a rapidly arresting career, of a distinct, tangy busyness and distress. If the ending seems like a copout consider the story with Hollywood thinkgroups in mind and you have a cheap, ill-defined fantasy rather than an adventurous existential warning. It’s a thriller that’s lets you have your cake and eat it too, unlike the potent but thematically flawed Mississippi Grind.
Howard may be a loathesome charlatan at heart but the Safdies have no difficulty in relating his own subjectivity to the universal, turning his bad luck and impulsive strokes of genius into the balancing act of life, played out like some coked up Monopoly game. The performances, including involved acting debuts by Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, boast extreme, effective realism. The score by electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never is retro-future heaven and simultaneously a second brilliant collaboration between the Safdies and Daniel Lapotin, dropping the OPN alias. The seedy, surreal world of New York jewelers, based on the profession of the film-duo's own father as well as their proud Jewish heritage terrifically believable dialogues before the more terrifying confrontations.
From the hallucinatory bookends to the urgent questions of character and ethics, Uncut Gems is the kind of potential future classic that will more than likely stand above some awards season ignorance, especially as A24's highest grossing release so far.
2 ½ (out of 4)
So a long time ago there once was a really good space fantasy movie called Star Wars. It became and remains essentially the most popular original film of all time, at least as far as domestic audiences are concerned. The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was a blockbuster miracle superseding the iconoclastic predecessor with rich emotion, vibrant drama and deepened ingenuity.
Everyone with a sliver of a grasp at pop culture knowledge is aware of this but it’s important to reiterate that 1980 really was the last time Star Wars movies were exceptionally great. Return of the Jedi, regardless of its operatic strengths and classic climax, was a considerable step down for the series as the now-trilogy had already found itself in a relative state of creative rehashing. The prequels famously splintered the religious fanbase and critical voices, setting the stage for the exponential divide we have now in the age of the Mouse's movie monopoly. George Lucas’s heart was in the right place when he sought to impart brand new stories within his established world by way of shiny new digital technology and yet, whether you cite the crutch of green-screen-imprisoned visual effects, hokey plotting, faulty humor (unintentional or otherwise) or any other repeated nitpicks, you have to admit Lucas was unable to conjure anything close to an instant, enduring classic like his watershed original movie, nor emulate the tales of old and tangential influences that inspired him. Revenge of the Sith is the only story apart from the first trilogy really worth a damn – there was potential for masterful moviemaking if not for Lucas’ shortcomings, which are far more unregulated in the grotesque indulgence of The Phantom Menace and the protracted melodramatics of Attack of the Clones.
By the time The Force Awakens came out just four years ago, Disney hedged their bets on drawing in the largest possible audience and assuaging disgruntled diehards in order to funnel as many people back into the collective fan machine as possible. The safe nostalgia trip was nothing more than a remix, a redo and a softball setup for potentially better movies down the line. Reportedly, and astonishingly, nothing was planned beyond Episode 7 – enter Rian Johnson, who put forth his own radical vision in relative disregard to the template provided by The Force Awakens and a lot of Star Wars mythos in general. This was the irreparable fragmentation of the base – some critics declared The Last Jedi to be one of the great Star Wars movies to date while others deemed it an awful, meandering, contradictory mess, myself included. In the words of Bo Burnham, original does not mean good. No amount of decent visual direction, fine developments of the dynamics between Rey and Kylo Ren and admirable (and unfulfilled) attempt at thematic substance can redeem Johnson’s most baffling, bold and borderline stupid choices.
Capping off this new, controversially uneven trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker is forced to serve as a two-fold finale – the end of a fan fiction-tier sequel trilogy and, in the greater scheme of things, the climax of nine terribly popular movies, all while supposedly fulfilling its own individual cinematic goals. J. J. Abrams, who jumped from Star Trek to Star Wars in one bound, was brought back into the fold after Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow dropped out of direction. And as you might predict, this new film tries to placate the abandon of its predecessor by reversing many of Johnson’s more unpopular decisions. Luke’s aged ideology has been completely autocorrected, Rose’s role has been diminished, Snoke’s importance is immediately downplayed, just to name a couple reversions.
So after deliberation on all of Star Wars’ past, the short review is this: if you hated The Last Jedi, logic suggests you’re probably okay with The Rise of Skywalker and vice versa. I can't defend Johnson's film as entertainment whereas J. J. compels me to enjoy his films in spite of myself. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the ingenuity of the original two films cannot be duplicated, manufactured or otherwise reattained and the whole idea of continuity in this "saga" has been one fantastical bit of winging it at every turn. However that does not excuse how discordant Episodes Seven through Nine plays out as consecutively conceived space operas. At least with the prequels there was a definitive destination for the story, although those films are almost just as guilty of unsatisfactory miscalculations.
All this to say – relatively speaking within the realm of Star Wars movies and big blockbusters overall – I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker for what it was, and what it was mostly was a loud, practically incoherent, expensive, intermittently lovely yet roughly nonsensical pile of space fantasy remains. Maybe that's a good defense for The Last Jedi, and even The Force Awakens too, but I don't really care. Something urges me to die on the "Rise of Skywalker is the best of the trilogy" hill. Call me cuckoo.
J. J. the writer and his partner Chris Terrio (the odd duck with both an Academy Award for Adapted Screenwriting in Argo and co-writer credits for Batman v Superman and Justice League) had the unenviable job of wrapping up at least two and at most eight predecessors immediately after Johnson crudely painted the new franchise storyline into a claustrophobic narrative corner. TRoS is, if anything, admittedly overstuffed and cacophonous – but J. J. the director can almost always smooth over internal absurdity, dull dialogue and sometimes downright dumb interludes with the disciplined velocity of his digestible gifts. His first Star War loses points inherently for narrow-mindedly blocking out all creative directions for the story, and The Last Jedi both ignores a decent cliffhanger for a middle chapter and mistakenly gives us a wasted, misplaced feeling of finality.
Of course by returning to the comfort zone, part nine is planted in Return of the Jedi, but this one still feels like a neatly continuous yet separate, standard Star Wars movie – the planet-trotting adventure emulates silly serial escapades of old, the new characters finally feel comfortable and established, the broad humor lands abnormally well and the action (in the second act specifically) is kind of exhilarating when Abrams’ camerawork is most fluid and polished. The cinematography is fairly vivid and the emotions, mainly between Rey and Kylo (whose relationship has been the only consistent character drama the past three films) are effective even if the bumbled, half-baked story isn’t so much.
My enjoyment doesn’t deter the film’s countless flaws, yet I reiterate: Star Wars has never exceeded the level of “eh..” in 40 years, and this film, nor any other (no matter the numerous apologists in Lucas’s or Johnson’s respective camps) breaks the streak. The Rise of Skywalker is flashing colors and paper-thin myth-making – but if you're itching for a sleazy, exciting visit to the movies this one goes down easy and if you’re looking for much more than that from this franchise at this point of corporate exploitation you’ve backed the wrong horse. Frankly, if you can get past the Emperor’s resurrection (“somehow, Palpatine returned,” was a explanation enough for Kathleen Kennedy) and maybe reaffirm the idea that these films are literally about monks with space magic, futuristic military machines and the well-stirred blend of science fiction, fantasy, adventure and westerns, the more gaping flaws in the silly story mechanics feel inconsequential next to detectable entertainment value. At least the insults to our intelligence are employed for the sake of greater cinematic appeal rather than feeble moral revisionism (*ahem Rian). This appropriate simplicity probably explains why audiences are receiving The Rise of Skywalker so reasonably while critics have finally mounted their high horse after shamelessly shilling the mediocre Disney Wars thus far, Solo notwithstanding. I won’t even go so far as to say all these movies are for children (though that is the core audience that will get the most out of them) but I can’t think of another film of late more deserving of the preliminary, and very asinine, advice to just, like, turn your brain off dude.
In-theater enjoyment and retroactive embarrassment is how nearly every Abrams movie plays out, and The Rise of Skywalker is just that and then a little more just to be safe. Still, Abrams knows how to shoot a movie efficiently with his trademark Spielberg-lite senses. You can criticize so much – the wonky third act, the needless new characters, the bullet train plot process – but the film gets you your money’s worth by the sheer ration of content vs time – this Star War has a whole beginning middle and end when it should be considerably focused on resolution, ya know like any good, properly planned trilogy should.
Babu Frick was cool! Adam Driver is magnificent, filling out the only character of the new trilogy we can be glad about. They gave Poe a few more layers which was nice. It’s almost miraculous the way Carrie Fischer’s scenes play so smoothly, until Leia's death when they don’t so much. Richard E. Grant should've been an Imperial General for all three movies and then Domnhall Gleeson's Hux actually wasn't an Imperial General all along so... the wayfinder and the Sith dagger were sort of stupid uh... the climax was kinda um... yeah I change my mind this isn't the hill I want to die on frankly.
3 ½ (out of 4)
The current cultural climate would indicate these are not the times in which a filmmaker as uncompromising and recently erratic as Terrence Malick would prosper. But, at least in terms of unmitigated productivity, my god, the man has seriously redefined his work ethic to the exact polar extreme of the strict selectivity of his 20th century career. It really feels like some executive at Fox should have told him to stop sometime along the way but his prolific drive has miraculously let him mold the most controversial, disputed, discussed and otherwise divisive entries of his filmmaking pilgrimage.
A Hidden Life is the first Malick feature in a long while to bear an identifiable narrative structure after a streak of five variably experimental projects during the last decade. There’s no stopping him either, as Malick's next enterprise is already on deck: the extended renaissance of America’s most cloistered moviemaker continues with Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul) as Jesus and Oscar winner Mark Rylance as four separate manifestations of Satan in the forthcoming The Last Planet.
In retrospect, however, the greatness of The Tree of Life will surely remain uncontested as it tops numerous best of the decade lists but otherwise all bets are off – the significance of the stretch from To the Wonder through Knight of Cups and Song to Song and finally Voyage of Time will be forever questioned. But with relative, specific and passionate confidence I can say A Hidden Life is Malick’s legitimate return to form, his most sweepingly beautiful and actively meaningful motion picture since his tremendous, awe-inspiring peak with The New World and The Tree of Life, though this is not so say equally valid arguments cannot be made for Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.
In years of late he has categorically bent the fabric of the medium to the point of ineffectual disrepair. While I'll happily defend the ethereal artistry of Wonder and Knight, I would certainly not be the first to denounce Song and Voyage as needless, uninspired and almost like self-parody. Now, Malick returns to the emotionally blistering breadth of his earlier historical renditions, a dependable formula back in employment with a newly exploratory era hopefully at its end.
Relentlessly ruminating on faith, nature, principles and dogmas, Malick's impeccable eye and intrinsic ability to extol martyrs and noble detractors magnifies a particular instance of personal devotion into broad implications on social and political injustices. This isn’t Hacksaw Ridge – the moral sincerity of A Hidden Life notes how much doing the right thing can cost you without going into Mel Gibson-level preaching or religious symbolism. Malick's unrestricted sensibilities are nonetheless as indulgent and uncompromising as ever, patiently taking three contemplative hours to contrast the rustic contentment and idyllic day to day of a Polish farmer with the extensive reach of Hitler’s totalitarian reign and the senseless brutality of Nazi prison camps.
It’s the kind of masterpiece that will be a struggle to revisit casually but A Hidden Life has more urgency, ethical deliberation and scenic resplendence than several of Malick's late-era improvised one-offs combined. It’s riveting and harrowing, and just as surreally edited, probingly photographed and narratively unconcerned as his best and most frustrating creations, though those classes are certainly not mutually exclusive. Malick also improves his prescribed whispery voice-overs by using actual letters exchanged by the central separated couple – played to painful perfection by August Diehl and Valerie Pachner – as a way to upgrade an auteur trademark (and easy point of mockery) from inner monologue to longing longhand, bettering the excruciating power of the acting, not to mention the filmmaker's other celestial, prayer-like characteristics.
This will be an agonizing beauty to those with enough attention to submit to an imposing vision, a brutal bore to those unaccustomed to the auteur's predilections and sure to be generally ignored since Malick's capricious career has all but abandoned whatever mainstream appeal it once maintained. It’s probably preferable that way since audiences with the tolerance for and interest to seek out A Hidden Life are far likelier to appreciate the painstaking process of lucid misfortune.
The spellbinding synthesis of stunning compositions and James Newton Howard (scoring his only Malick feature just like other heavyweights in his field like Hans Zimmer, James Horner and Alexandre Desplat) assisted by choice classical selections is a faintly familiar, breathtaking catharsis. The firm defense of selflessness and unshakable fealty at the expense of subjective logic is what affirms the film's greatness. A Hidden Life finds an American legend back in tune with the potential of his innovative formal singularity and fervid spiritual resolve.
3 ½ (out of 4)
What’s the opposite of a flash in the pan? That’s Noah Baumbach, who unflaggingly appears to evolve like some perfect creative organism into one of the great screenwriters and most assured original filmmakers of his generation. His last film The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) was among the first to establish Netflix as a considerably cinematic platform as well as a respite for auteurs, so long as their preeminent features play in at least a handful of theaters. And Baumbach – the hipster wunderkind, the mumblecore, screwball, comedy-drama practitioner, the indie savior of the moment – has returned with the most classically expressive and profoundly personal film of his career. After Roma officially symbolized the place of streaming on the awards landscape last year, Marriage Story sits alongside Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman as the Netflix’s two forerunners for bragging rights in the latest Oscar conversation.
Whether you see Marriage Story in theaters or in your home, Baumbach’s commanding domestic shake-up exceeds the bubblier coming-of-age iterations defining the first half of this decade – at last the drama has officially drowned out the laughs. His longest, most feverish, seamless, richly themed and structurally inspired film is soundly settled in an emotive autobiographical screenplay and instinctive direction. Kramer vs. Kramer wishes it was as urgently, transfixingly good.
Baumbach has been forever outdoing himself since The Squid and the Whale (his previous best for the New York native's most confessional, lifelike film) earned him a nomination for Best Original Screenplay 15 years ago. Afterwards Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg found him taking his capacity for prickly cynicism to heart by magnifying challenging, unlikable protagonists to an eventual exhaustive breaking point. This is just before his subsequent romantic relationship with Greta Gerwig would produce the most formatively fruitful moments of his career – well, until now. His former masterworks – the fizzy, wistful Frances Ha and the barbed satire of Mistress America – were both miniature revelations. In addition further collaborations with Adam Driver and Ben Stiller along the way with While We’re Young and a little later in The Meyerowitz Stories lived up to an elevated standard of watertight, theatrical, character-scrutinizing, soul-revealing dramedies.
But no precedents or formulas leaves Marriage Story as anything other than an artistic surprise, a delicate, ruthless apex and an inevitability of the creator’s realist and humanist tendencies. Baumbach has never shied from introducing a heightened sense of verisimilitude into his fictions, allowing his own experiences and relationships to dictate the scope, honesty and purpose of each passing movie as any supposedly authentic American filmmaker should. Seemingly relating his own understanding of marital separation – Baumbach and his ex-wife and accomplished actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who starred in Margot) were divorced just over a decade ago – this is his most serious examination of the classic tale of creator and muse, in this case with Adam Driver in the patriarchal role of Charlie and Scarlett Johansson's Nicole initiating the keen pains of annulment, especially with the custody of a child to settle.
One of Driver's earliest roles was Frances and you could see the promise right away. Between balancing an impressive portfolio of collaborations (within a decade he's worked with Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee and has upcoming projects with Ridley Scott and Leos Carax) with mainstream acceptance (as Kylo Ren, literally the only redeeming thing about Disney's Star Wars sequels), he’s blossomed into one of the standouts of his generation. Johansson too has kept a steady diet of great turns in great films such as Lost in Translation, Under the Skin and Her while remaining tethered to Marvel's staggering success since 2010. Both Driver and Johansson offer career-crowning performances; they genuinely draw out the best in each other.
So much of the runtime is built out of crucial, extended monologues and conversations making up the bulk of the film's greatness, selectively unleashing the pent up bitterness of any kind of discordant relationship. Nicole's early confessional recount to Laura Dern's Nora, the climactic bout, the spine-shivering discomfort of "the thing with the knife" excerpt, all hinge on momentous, dedicated acting and faultless, illuminating writing. When Baumbach isn't wielding his expertise at overlapping, revealing dialogues, he's positing the potency of emotional revelation or the futile control we have over the perception of ourselves. Few moments like the courtroom tussle – which brilliantly employs Ray Liotta and Dern's enormous personalities as cutthroat divorce lawyers – followed by the now annoyingly memed argument scene so plainly exercise Baumbach's passion for examining the ugliness of personal trivialities and the ubiquity of oblivious, relentless egomania.
But because the impartiality is expertly reconciled it's less about who wins then about the fleeting nature of bad times, the irony of fighting for the love of a child who barely could care about the legal circumstances deciding his fate, the yearning for a greater sense of understanding and communion with the people closest to us. Like any successful breakup movie should, each side gets their due time and no one ends up the bad guy, victim, winner or loser.
Beyond the obvious irony of its title, Marriage Story is filled with the writer-director's most relied upon juxtapositions – mostly the equilibrium of human nature, our flaws and virtues in a cyclical succession that invokes clear and true personalities. But this time Baumbach’s emotional scope is at its widest, the dramatic weight has never been heavier and the black humor that often makes his work so realistically exceptional is just so searing and relieving. If the final minutes don’t break you down to brine and shiny eyes I don’t know what will. This is a dearly earned masterwork, the sum of twenty-five years of tireless independent filmmaking giving way to rare cinematic clarity and appreciably intimate reflections. Despite touching on the darkest, most despicable aspects of civilized behavior, the ending has such terribly poignant power – Baumbach quaintly ties little bows at the end of even his most troubling yarns, but the optimism of Marriage Story is honest, piercing and graceful. Randy Newman lends Baumbach the assist on the emotive front – his movies have never had so much purifying pathos walking in step with beautiful cinematic scoring to illustrate all the layered interactions and reliable wisdom.
Marriage Story is the best film of the year – it’s the zenith of Baumbach’s career to date, crucial evidence of the refinement of his unshakable skills and also an encouraging indication that he might never stop exceeding his former triumphs. He’s a reincarnation of Woody Allen, Ernst Lubitsch, Whit Stillman and all folded in one, a man whose purpose is the consistent attempt to create the impeccable screenplay and thus, in some cases, the flawless film. After so many minor, debatable masterpieces, he’s arrived at a measure of quotidian fulfillment, an undisputed release of anguish and its antidote.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Rian Johnson’s career is the real mystery. Arriving after a competently thorny neo-noir debut (Brick), a half-baked comedy caper (The Brothers Bloom), some solid sci-fi (Looper) and what can only be described as the most detestable Star Wars sequel you could possibly dream up (Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, in case you forgot), Knives Out is what you could call his mischievous masterpiece. It's the movie he’s clearly been itching to get to, deserving of all the hype since this past TIFF and one of the most emphatically, heartily entertaining films in years.
Whereas his snide teasing and frivolous misdirection left a spurious space where The Last Jedi’s supposed soul and sophistication is, Knives Out merrily frolics through your expectations in a way that invigorates Johnson’s self-branded whodunit genre-disassembly. The writer-director finds plenty of room within the Thrombey Mansion to administer his shrewd formal finesse – by the end of Act 1 Knives Out has already become its own enterprising creative item despite copious influences. With the likes of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle too obvious to mention, more relevantly this film is something like the crass Americanized companion to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. However Knives Out is also comprised of timeless dramatic irony and substantial suspense, reaching back to the voluptuous anxiety of seminal noir classics such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity or Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window.
Daniel Craig’s magnificent lead performance as Detective Benoit Blanc crowns an imposing cast. In a role reminiscent of the empirical investigative work of, say, Dial M for Murder, Knives Out demonstrates the same anticipatory unease of many a Hitchcock flick. Johnson’s idea of the spellbinding, unshakably suave private snoop is a fine riff on the Philip Marlowe’s and Hercule Poirot’s of the past. “This machine, unerringly, arrives at the truth,” and so go many of Craig's southern-baked soliloquies, each as smooth and sharp as Tennessee Whiskey. Ana de Armas is the film’s emotional ballast and her affect makes for a sympathetic protagonist and ensures some refinement in the conspicuous politics.
The remainder of the sterling ensemble includes Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer and Don Johnson, all who conform to Johnson’s cognizant premise without gleefully slipping into mugging stereotypes. As a reflection of our culture’s dread of holiday discord, the underpinnings of national divide are appropriate but will get the Right riled up for spitting in the face of anti-immigration rhetoric. But the fiscal journey of the Thrombey children is about the hypocrisy of entitlement and how little self-sufficiency can be expected of privileged, opportunistic leeches. Essentially Knives Out supposes karma rewards nature’s kinder characters; the upper class comeuppance and ultimate meritocratic sentiment is a fine notion.
From the dexterous dolly shots to the mansion's sublime mise-en-scène, Johnson’s airtight picture is able to serve all audiences equally with admirable auteur craftwork as well as timely cheek. The vivid characters sell the design of the ethical debates and borderline asinine revelations of the final admissions – Johnson’s script dances down the tightrope of cleverness, wobbling only slightly in the last steps over the vacuum of convolution. If the dialogue weren’t so savory, or the editing so poetic or the performances so refreshing, one slip-up could have spoiled the whole stew – is a minor plot hole of much consequence in the scope of such cunning storytelling?
In revisits I’m sure the gratification of the film’s composition – in addition to Johnson’s intention for audiences to find themselves debating, dissenting or otherwise disagreeing – will be its own reward. In the face of box office prosperity a sequel has been ordered for Detective Blanc’s further cases – Craig is so delectably compelling to observe in action, so I'm on board no matter what.
3 (out of 4)
Last year Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was touted less as an exceptionally enlightening documentary and more simply because anything venerating Fred Rogers is by extension worth celebrating. Such is the case with the third film by Marielle Heller – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is securely anchored and basically blessed by the graceful hand of Tom Hanks but more actually safeguarded by the very spirit of Rogers alone.
But Heller's flair is for knotty personality profiles and with A Beautiful Day she sustains a spotless, steady career. The director has become a biopic specialist since her first, fussiest and most uncomfortably realistic film – and the only one she’s also written the screenplay for – the adaptation of quasi-graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? could coax anyone out of their antipathy toward Melissa McCarthy whilst illustrating a psyche I’m sure no other filmmaker could've drawn clearer. The messy verisimilitude of those two dark-comic films distinguishes just how few rough edges outline A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
The unsympathetic elements are there in a logical attempt at emotional revelation, an obvious contrast to draw next to Roger's unwavering earnestness for the necessary melodramatic backdrop. The Esquire article from which the movie is inspired tries to place you in the writer/cynic (same thing) Tom Junod's disposition – Matthew Rhys stars as the "Can You Say ... Hero?" article scribe, reasonably detailing the mindset of the curmudgeon. As Rogers, Hanks plays a supporting figure who is less a foil than a headshrink (yes I realize Rogers was an ordained minister) so that Heller's propensity to depict discomfort can be applied to the genuine yet exasperating process of watching Rogers transform journalism into therapy.
But nearly everyone who walks into the Mr. Rogers movie doesn’t need an intervention. Only a few scenes deserve the easy tears they so smoothly extract, often at the assistance of Hanks’ portrayal which takes a mere 90 seconds to get used to. The grains of wisdom and inquiries into solemn truths take a collectively heavy toll as Heller cranks the waterworks nearly as high as the documentary did. But, as I said in that review, with no dirt to dig up, Rogers' life's work exists as it always has, making me question whether this Oscar-attractor circa 2019 is worth more than a bit of binging Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood cannot get around the fact that the tenderhearted television icon’s mentality has only so much to offer other than a moral, civic ideal to aim for – and of course the film takes time to assert that we shouldn't place his piousness on a pedestal apart from the status quo as Rogers needs no deification.
Hanks has his first Supporting Actor nomination in the bag after two famous consecutive Best Actor wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump plus three more nominations in the same category. This latest biographical portrait amounts to the sixth real life figure modeled in six years – Fred Rogers follows the titular Captain Phillips, Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, two Spielberg projects including James B. Donovan in Bridge of Spies and Ben Bradlee in The Post as well as Sully in the only decent recent Clint Eastwood movie of the same name. Great acting is about being as good at playing yourself as you are at emulating a chameleon and Hanks is suited for this role like he's been for so many before. This performance is just below some of his deepest, most distinguished turns like Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away, Big and Phillips.
Heller’s film has a compelling ethical compass but it is just not as gutsy or provoking as her earlier explorations. This is no slump since she’s willing to touch on an unregistered maturity at the heart of even the most innocent of circumstances like the cardigan-toting shepherd himself. Just because Heller’s playing it safer doesn’t mean she isn’t doing it well.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Martin Scorsese is a great director whose magnitude is under ceaseless reappraisal and so his superior touch must reestablish itself as new ventures rectify the compounded weight of a filmography stretching over half a century. It’s been a decade of providence for Scorsese with vigorous, extravagant epics and purposeful passion projects (Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, you decide which is which) leading to The Irishman. Despite its shortcomings as a late, indulgent excerpt alongside a seismic oeuvre and within the tradition of the gangster film, the film is nonetheless another autumnal masterstroke fashioned out of each and every one of Scorsese’s convictions and practicalities.
The Irishman is flimsiest when the story must adhere to the unavoidable if oftentimes impressively accomplished digital de-aging, but the extreme expense behind the Netflix-backed undertaking is otherwise exhausted on the integral things – substantial period reproduction in the sets and costumes, thoroughly convincing make-up design and premiere acting talent. The informal narration, discreet editing and cold humor are as blistering as the subjective historical commentary and vicious violence – all the elements adding up to Scorsese the auteur are fully functional, though whether or not we have an indispensable cinematic exploit on our hands will be long in dispute.
Will this endure as immaculately as the fundamental gangster benchmarks of Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino? The Irishman has its own exposé and its own history, and Scorsese never appears to tire of forming new questions of conscience and hefty, mythically complex portraits. His dedication to the apathetic reality of Philadelphia hitman Frank Sheeran’s story is as effectual as his dissections of other nefarious personages in crime history or the seedier exploits of his own experiences that snuck into his early efforts like Mean Streets.
Robert De Niro, in his ninth collaboration with Scorsese, is somewhat worse for wear despite his devotion and while Joe Pesci outshines him in general, both actors posit the greater empathy the closer they play to their real age – de-aging technology is aways from perfection and even when the CGI is passable the actors are more organic when they're not pretending to live in anything other than their own skin (and a wee bit of makeup). Al Pacino is the film's strongest asset as Jimmy Hoffa and, even with a legendary career founded on heralded, iconic performances (Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather films, Scarface, etc.), he’s still an actor to be reckoned with as he ruggedly operates a classically tragic arc.
No matter if you think 3 ½ hours of mobster ethos is too much, The Irishman is so assured, authoritative and abundantly entertaining it’s enough to have you reassessing and reacquainting yourself with the mighty scope of Scorsese’s body of work. Personal favorites like The Last Temptation of Christ and After Hours inch up on the rewatch list, his most cherished films (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) demand another bout of evaluation – how superfluous was Casino after all? – and I’ve never felt more compelled to fill in the blanks with The Age of Innocence, New York, New York or Who’s That Knocking At My Door? In short, if you really are only as good as your last movie, Scorsese is doing pretty well for himself. And after fifty years of supremacy why should he quit now?
2 (out of 4)
The funny thing about feminist cinema is its prime examples are never self-declared but self-evident. At the very least if a woman's picture (as a man in the '40s might refer to it) was a financial failure the director didn’t blame it on absent misogynists – sorry but if this Charlie’s Angels flops isn’t it the missing ladies in the audience who are the real problem? And when novice filmmaker Elizabeth Banks, whose only directorial credit is shooting Kay Cannon’s script of Pitch Perfect 2, is hardly some kind of Kelly Reichardt or Greta Gerwig in waiting and the film is so instantaneously forgettable, there's really nothing to defend or get worked up about.
K-Stew is trying but frankly I’ve never found her notion of charisma more excruciating to behold. If there isn’t lame, trifling humor – which doesn’t jar at all with the blockbuster big boy pants the film yanks on when the action drops – then the super woke dialogue is literally reciting gender statistics. Gee, I bet women feel so empowered! Jasmine from the new Aladdin (Naomi Scott) is an idle audience insert while the utterly winsome Ella Balinska is misspent when she’s good enough to be bolstering Bond or Mission: Impossible.
I never thought I’d look back at the McG Angel’s flicks with nostalgia and admiration, but besides Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu playing more compellingly capable heroines, those two dumb wire-fu parodies at least had a semblance of stylization and adequate proportions of fetishism and feminism. All 2019’s reboot has is Patrick Stewart.
Ford v Ferrari
3 (out of 4)
This is what they call a good old-fashioned time at the movies – nothin’ fancy at all. Technical prowess, sprawling historical illumination, thrilling tests of human endurance and seasoned actors bringing legends to life – if not for those things Ford v Ferrari somehow doesn’t abandon the common yokel's grasp of the joint business / engineering competition or insult your intelligence with too much superfluous open-road navel-gazing. Basically everyone in the audience has a hook, especially with such phenomenally edited action, but FvF is foremost steeped in emotional earthiness.
James Mangold ventured down the biopic path with Walk the Line to similarly well-rounded success (healthy awards recognition and decent treatment at the box office) while more current detours to comic books with The Wolverine and Logan did not erase but fortified his craft. The friendship between Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles naturally clicks the film’s disparate dramatics into place. Christian Bale is as good as some of his defining performances (American Psycho, The Machinist, The Prestige, Rescue Dawn) and Matt Damon reminds you why he was ever such a big deal to begin with. It's no surprise the most interesting part of the racing movie is the human friction – regardless Ford v Ferrari still has true momentum no matter how fast things are moving.
The Good Liar
1 ½ (out of 4)
The employment of standard narrative discipline usually conjures the expectancy of forthcoming scenes, but there are some movies so transparent, predictable and pointless it's actually befuddling to picture people enjoying such stuffy schlock. No matter how many movies I’ve seen I’m usually the one playing the fool when it comes to twist-laden attractions like The Good Liar, but damn – I could call every listless shot of this overstated bore.
So I'm admittedly not so clever but there was only so much to be done with the arrangement of dueling elderly deceivers. Let me give you a hint – whoever you think has the upper hand (wait for it) doesn’t. The Good Liar has a pinch of merit as opposing legends of stage and screen Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren make the viewing compulsory and… that’s about it. It’s a pity the tacky novel wasn't restricted to the rotating rack at the airport kiosk as culture intended. Something tells me the hidden #metoo / Nazi-revenge double threat helped keep this snooze in the creative conversation.
2 (out of 4)
Stephen King's spot on the big screen is more illustrious than ever and just as inconsistent. Even in an already big year for the heavyweight author – a Pet Sematary reboot, It Chapter Two, even In the Tall Grass for Netflix – the creative feebleness of Doctor Sleep would feel more like King's fault if the movie didn't principally function as an inevitable consequence of the 1980 interpretation of The Shining.
Since no one's ever clamored for a King screenplay save for Creepshow, the story usually goes the more detached he is from the visual rendition of his novels the purer the results. Historically this is most evidently felt in the lingering predominance of Stanley Kubrick's hallmark of the horror horizon some 40 years out. That said, I wasn’t automatically pessimistic to hear King’s latent continuation of his famous 1977 novel was being fit for the screen courtesy of the runaway success of 2017’s It. Considering Doctor Sleep invariably must exist as a curiously inconsequential follow-up to maybe Kubrick’s most inscrutable creation, as both a fresh King adaptation and a dormant sequel it soon becomes apparent that this film's artistic task was impossible.
But what matters by the time you sit your ass in the theater is the story find some way justify its stupendously ill-advised undertaking and ridiculously indulgent two and a half hours. At the outset Mike Flanagan's feature looks like it's navigating a divergent nightmare, but, because of the fatal choice to perpetually hammer home Kubrick’s influence, Doctor Sleep is ultimately so dysfunctional as entertainment and can be so promptly discredited as cinema. Flanagan is certainly no force of filmmaking nature akin to Stanley but honestly who is? As a sharp marksman of B-movie diligence – Oculus is a treat, better than his triptych of Netflix joints (the shrewd slasher Hush, the dim-witted dreams of Before I Wake, and an antithetically pocket-sized King adaptation Gerald’s Game) – Flanagan is a man of quiet consistency. At the very least his gloomy voice as a lesser, yet practiced digital auteur is intact, the only factor shaking off a few of Doctor Sleep's inescapable cinematic shadows. Even as the film’s writer, editor and director, who’s to say how much of his voice was left untouched since there’s King’s capital K Krazy source material to consider and Warner Brothers' itch for a movie proportionate to Kubrick’s deliberate, initially alienating calculations.
By egregiously citing Kubrick’s premeditated dexterity, Flanagan's Hollywood break is incapable of emerging as its own thing. Despite a radical shift in the internal mythology, Doctor Sleep never fails to act as a stylistic simulacrum of The Shining’s meticulously mind-dissolving psychological trip. The exact score (harsh horns, nebulous, spectral ambiance and those heartbeat jungle drums) and visual references (imposing symmetry, glacially superimposed transitions, haunting tracking shots) are feel more like plagiarism than homage, serving to always remind you of its predecessor's perfection while King's imagination solemnly unravels the most boring, witless X-Men tale of all time.
Yet even so much paling in comparison can't discount the fact that Ewan McGregor will forever play a creditable protagonist and Rebecca Ferguson continues to exercise villainesses as her exquisite forte. A friend told me if this movie reminded him of the dreadful related sequence from Ready Player One it'd be the kiss of death, and with pointless reproductions of memorable Shining moments by lookalike actors (um, WB you do own the original footage correct?) the worst has been realized. As with Spielberg's conundrum, reverence alone does not suffice to give you a pass no matter how intrinsically great the point of origin or praise – and whether the inspiration of Doctor Sleep is more Kubrick's film or King's book, the movie just kind of sucks either way.
3 (out of 4)
Taika Waititi is going places and he’s not pausing along his abnormal directorial path to catch a breath or sniff some roses. Alongside the Russo brothers and Joss Whedon, Waititi was one of the few indie-Hollywood transitions – ya know, the routine of converting small time filmmakers into overnight blockbuster neophytes – to pay off successfully with Thor: Ragnarok, a Marvel film with an uncommonly discernable identity. Before Waititi returns to the superhero game with Thor: Love and Thunder and possibly attempts an inescapably expensive adaptation of Akira later on, with Jojo Rabbit he protects his place as an oddball on the outskirts while also netting some invaluable license to Oscar prestige.
Something like Wes Anderson's mind meshed with Life is Beautiful or perhaps Come and See, Jojo Rabbit is constructed on an inflexible tone of indifference. The movie's somewhat inflammatory existence makes me all the curiouser about Germany’s take on a thoroughly Americanized (or Kiwied, however you look at it), flagrantly parodic impression of Adolf Hitler’s ideology on youngsters, particularly when certain stateside spectators are so irked. Waititi’s satire does not exactly succeed as brazen folly, although a well-placed pun or turn of phrase lets Waititi show that his truest talents lie in swift, sage dialogue.
It's never too soon to comment on the nature of distorting history – especially the extra sensitive, 20th century sort – to your own will. When Tarantino warps WWII to his pleasing, it's a saucy continuation of a foolhardy brand but somehow Waititi's impish twists on Nazis, Jews and the subjects in between have been enough for grumbling critics to dismiss the film altogether. To be frank I don't care one smidgen how writers and directors erroneously tweak the past for the sake of a cinematic present, nor about the frail sensitivity of audiences readily conditioned to be rattled at a second's notice. Jojo Rabbit got under my skin emotionally and no amount of personal provocation could agitate shoo-in sympathetic wit once the uneasy first act subsided. This isn't Au Revoir, Les Enfants after all, it's a quirky, sappy comedy by the guy who made that vampire mockumentary starring himself and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which is twice the eccentric feel-good flick Jojo is and sadly no one's seen it. Even when someone both respected and Jewish steps behind the camera as in Steven Spielberg with Schindler's List, still the most petulant of bellyachers are unable to be quelled. I guess religion and nationalism can always be counted on to bring out the worst in the worst of us.
Even if this affair has some overly cute or farcical flashes, the succession of goofiness and heartache is rather strategic, even mathematical. At first, especially with Rebel Wilson onscreen, you should be daring Waititi to hit an emotive peak high enough to win TIFF's People's Choice Award (over Marriage Story and Parasite) but it doesn’t take long for the agreeable juggling act of silliness and substance to strike a sincere rhythm. Waititi himself executes this both on and offscreen, inhabiting young Jojo's idea of Hitler like a wisecracking devil on the shoulder throughout the entire film. Waititi purposely did no research on the infamous dictator, which while an adorable way to posthumously stick it to the Naziest Nazi is a little lazy no matter how appropriately ignorance suits the performance. His supporting cast – Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant – hand in some of the better performances of their careers as they have terrible fun with pronounced stereotypes. Johansson is specifically moving as the mother raising Jojo (the unassumingly extraordinary Roman Griffin Davis) and sheltering a Jewish girl Elsa (the wonderful Thomasin McKenzie) while her husband fights the war.
Building an organic bridge of empathy as any wholesome film should, Jojo’s steadily sentimental relationship with Elsa elicits an innocent earnestness to reconcile the film’s touchy tonal oddities. It’s honestly the recognizable devotion of McKenzie – who maybe is only so good at acting when it comes to playing scruffy homeless girls as in Leave No Trace – preventing Jojo Rabbit from tripping over its own excess of twee by taking every leap of pathos in stride.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
On the Rocks
The Trial of the Chicago 7
and many more
"So what've you been up to?"
and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice