Sunday, January 13, 2019

"On the Basis of Sex"

 ½ 

Earlier this year, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the subject of RBG, an insightful (though, to my taste, not quite insightful enough) documentary, and now comes the fictionalized docu-drama version of her life. On the Basis of Sex is a beautifully made film, with detailed, period visual flair throughout, and it's very well-acted, even if Felicity Jones can't quite nail Ginsburg's accent or her curiously restrained personality. Ginsburg life is her work, and vice-versa. As she demonstrates in her own documentary, she's not given to histrionics, a character quirk that denies director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg's nephew) the big, bravura moment movies like this demand.

That leaves film's impressive supporting cast -- Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux and an extended cameo by Kathy Bates -- to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and also relies on the audience to follow a technically complex tax-code lawsuit that Ginsburg fought with her husband Marty (Hammer), and which became the basis of her entire career.

The movie sparks some real and fascinating questions about Ginsburg's coming of age at a time of enormous social and cultural change, but it never addresses them head-on. Unexpectedly, fhe movie's most engaging and exciting character turns out to be Ginsburg's young daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who provides the movie with needed fire and passion. On the Basis of Sex is an audience pleaser, but more by virtue of its subject and its very existence than its dramatic and narrative heft.




Viewed January 13, 2019 -- AMC Sunset 5

1420

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Catching Up: "The Rider"

 ½ 

It would be easy to mistake The Rider as nothing more than a thinly veiled documentary, since it stars an injured rodeo rider named Brady as an injured rodeo rider named Brady, features the real Brady's family as his on-screen family, and his badly injured friend Lane as his badly injured friend Lane.  As a docudrama it would be fascinating, but director Chloé Zhao has done so much more with this slow and lyrical film than relate mere facts.

In the story of Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau), Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards find inspiration in the lonely, wide open spaces of South Dakota, where Brady wanders after a near-fatal rodeo accident.  Everything he knows has been taken from him, every bit of identity he has developed has been stripped away.  He tries to hold on, but his brain is wracked by seizures. His only solace is that he has avoided the fate of Lane Scott, who is brain damaged and nearly paralyzed.

The Rider is an intensely specific, carefully observed view of one person's life and fears and then, surprisingly like James Joyce's "The Dead," it leads into an ending that is both true to the story and the characters and staggeringly meaningful and moving. The Rider turns into a powerful and beautiful exploration of the impossibility of moving on when life changes with ferocious suddenness -- and an empathetic benediction: moving on, whether bravely or with painful resistance, is the most human experience.



Viewed January 8, 2018 -- DVD

Saturday, January 5, 2019

"The Mule"

  

With The Mule, Clint Eastwood reminds us why he's both a smooth and accomplished filmmaker and the guy who debated a chair. His latest movie is a laid-back combination of thriller, domestic drama and light comedy.

The latter quality is both the most charming and confounding part of The Mule, as Eastwood plays a gruff 90-year-old racist (shades of Gran Torino) who starts running drugs for a Mexican cartel. Much of The Mule plays like an orgiastic Trumpian fantasy of mean, bad Mexicans ruining our country. But The Mule completely skirts the issue that an angry and embittered white guy is actually doing the dirty work. Every Mexican (save one) is a scary, tattooed gangster, a view that the movie plays for laughs.

Tonally, The Mule wanders the map more than Eastwood's Earl Stone, who stumbles into a job running ever-bigger loads of cocaine from El Paso to Chicago. It's borderline silly as it depicts Stone's passion for gardening day lilies, earnest when it focuses on his estranged family, and completely lacking a point of view about what Earl is doing. The one thing it never is, though, is tense -- even when a dedicated FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper closes in on him. It's a thriller without thrills, but there are a lot of shots of Clint squinting, singing and even cavorting topless with nubile young women.

The Mule is not at all an unenjoyable experience, just very, very odd.




Viewed Jan. 5, 2019 -- AMC Burbank

1335

Friday, January 4, 2019

Catching Up: "1985"

It's been seven years since I started "There in the Dark," my blog about movies. I'm grateful for every single person who has read one of my reviews.  I love writing about movies even more than going to see them (and a certain editor would tell you I like writing about movies more than I like writing about other things ... rather too much more!).

That said, I've been wanting to change the approach for a while.  I love writing long essay pieces, and maybe they won't go away completely, but for the next few months, at least, I'm going to try to challenge myself to keep all new reviews to just 250 words maximum.  No cheating.  No exceptions.

We'll see how it goes!  And the first title of the year for this experiment should be a challenge, because I can think of so much more I'd like to say:

"1985"
  
Deliberately shot on high-grain 16 mm film stock that visually reaffirms that we're in a different time and place, director Yen Tan takes us somewhere very specific: Into America's heartland, where we see how the AIDS crisis played out in the most human terms. As gay men in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles were figuring out what they needed to do to live, some of them went back home to see if they could make amends with the families that kicked them out.

Cory Michael Smith plays Adrian, returning to suburban Fort Worth to have more time with his family, reconnect with an old girlfriend, and to take it all in before he dies. He knows his fate, but how does a young, vibrant man tell his family he may be dead soon? Adrian's few days at home at Christmas don't seem terribly dramatic on the surface, just pleasantly performed and beautifully realized.

Then it hits you: This was happening in millions of houses all over the country, as the reality of AIDS went mainstream. Life changed, one family, one house, one tear at a time.

1985 is slow and careful, takes its time, but Smith makes it impossible not to stay riveted to his story, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis, Aidan Langford and Jamie Chung are all wonderful. Not one character ends this movie exactly how she or he came into it ... always a sign of a story worth telling, and this one very much is.


Viewed Amazon Prime VOD -- 2000



Wednesday, January 2, 2019

2018: 5 Movies I Didn't Love

Many people I know and admire disagree with me that 2018 wasn't a very good year at the movies, but one thing we can all agree on: When it got bad, it got awful.

How bad?  Read on for the five stinkers from 2018 that disappointed, bored, irritated and sometimes even angered me. And that wasn't the good kind of anger.

 #5 
  First Man  

Not even close to being the worst movie of the year, First Man was made by people who know how to tell a story -- they just apparently forgot. Writer Josh Singer's last movie was Steven Spielberg's very fine The Post (which Singer wrote with Liz Hannah), and he also co-wrote Spotlight. Director Damien Chazelle is coming off of the stellar one-two punch of La La Land and Whiplash. So, why is this movie about Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon, an almost total bore? The typically unassailable Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as an insufferable, taciturn brat, which may have been true (as many have pointed out), but makes for terrible storytelling. First Man achieves the weird feat of asking why we went to the moon and failing to come up with an answer. It's not the worst film of the year by a long shot, just the most supremely and surprisingly disappointing.

 #4 
  TIE: Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased  
  

Two more cases of compelling real-life stories becoming dramatically inert films, not saved even by having fantastic actors in the lead roles. In Beautiful Boy, Timothée Chalamet tries his best to find something at the bottom of a drug-addicted heart, and it's hard to completely fault him or Steve Carell as his father for the rather complete failure of the movie. Director Felix van Groenigen can't find any compelling way to make us care for either character. The father is spoiled, self-absorbed and out-of-touch, who thinks the best way to bond with his drug-using son us to use drugs along with him.  (In one of the film's weirdest sequences, he searches for his own answers by ... snorting cocaine.)  Chalamet acts and acts and acts but can't give us any sort of explanation for why a kid with a perfect life ends up in the mean streets of San Francisco. The film promises answers and illumination, but gives us a dramatic interpretation that feels more like one of those disease-of-the-week TV movies from the 1970s.

Likewise, Boy Erased offers up the wonderfully droll Lucas Hedges from Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Manchester By the Sea, and places him alongside Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, then stands back to watch the sparks fizzle like a dud firecracker. Also Based on a True Story, Boy Erased is so set on being sincere in telling the story of a boy forced into gay "conversion" therapy that it never once shows us anything that jolts us. Told with muted colors and muted emotions, it wants to be Very Important but winds up very dull indeed.  Both this movie and Beautiful Boy end with title cards offering allegedly sobering statistics and information, as if they've been public service announcements. Neither offers any insight whatsoever, and both fail through their markedly noble intentions.

 #3 
 Vox Lux  

Watching Vox Lux is like listening to a crazy person spouting off all sorts of ideas and theories about pop culture and violence and mass shootings and celebrity and Lady Gaga and parenting and Hollywood and the music industry and the media and drug abuse and teen sex and alcoholism ... if that crazy person had no energy and just sort of rambled until he fell asleep. Vox Lux says a lot of things but has almost nothing to say, and worse than that says all of it with the energy of a three-toed sloth on Quaaludes. You go in hoping for something daring, you'll even settle for something as stupidly over-the-top as the incomprehensible Annihilation (which came close to being on this list, but aside from its insanely meaningless third act was at least interesting). But outside of a few intriguingly complex shots and Natalie Portman's loud and brash performance, you get nothing of note. Not a thing. Zip. Zero. Vox Lux just kind of sits there and occasionally moves about a little, and you're watching it the way you would a friend who's passed out, just seeing if there are signs of life. But there aren't. None at all.

 #2 
 Book Club  

Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NNZN58zLUU

There.

That's the one laugh in Book Club, and it's available online and for free. It's not a bad laugh, to be fair. But I just saved you 1 hour, 43 minutes and 40 seconds. Go do something useful with that time.


 #1 
 The Nun 

I would say something good about this horrible movie, but I can't think of a nice word to write. Nun.


Happy viewing in 2019, everyone.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018: Nine Movies I Really Liked ... and One I Loved


Well, that's it: 2018 is over and though I saw on average one film a week, about nine times the number seen by an average American, I didn't get to a number of films I was excited to see.  Still, there's no way I can claim to offer up a list of the best movies of the year that's even close to definitive.

Beyond that, it was at best a mediocre year.  There were some highlights, and there were some fine films -- movies that were really worth admiring -- but the year lacked an emotional standout, a movie that captivated and enchanted me like the movies of the last few years. There was no La La Land or Moonlight, no A Monster Calls or The Walk (a movie I still insist never got its due), and certainly no Call Me By Your Name.

There were good movies, enjoyable movies, and maybe over time some of them will start to feel great, but 2018 felt lackluster, and the fact that Black Panther -- unquestionably a solid and impressive action movie -- is being seriously discussed as a Best Picture Oscar nominee tells you something about the way the year went.

With that, here are 10 movies that stood out from a middling crowd:

  #10  
  Blockers  

The raunchy, raucous comedy of Blockers feels effortless, which is in itself an amazing accomplishment -- but it's aided by some of the most sharply drawn and honest characters of the year, outdone only by Eighth Grade (see below) when it comes to creating people you feel like you know.  It's also a movie that feels familiar, in the best way: an honest updating of and improvement on the territory John Hughes introduced back in the 1980s. It's not hard to imagine the parents in Blockers as the kids in a Hughes movie, trying hard to understand their own children. Director Kay Cannon moves the action along perfectly, and always finds a perfect balances between the gross-out humor and the heartfelt kind. There are plenty of each, and Blockers is guaranteed to make you laugh.

  #9  
  Roma  

See Roma on the biggest screen you can -- don't watch on it on Netflix if you care about the movies -- and ideally with the best possible sound. The images and the sound design in Alfonso Cuarón's meditation on memory are incredible and indelible. The barely-there story is perhaps less captivating, but if you give it a chance you'll discover that the sights and sounds of this movie stay with you long, long after it's over. While they may lack a certain emotional heft, there are moments in this movie I think will stay with me permanently. It's a ravishingly beautiful movie and a wonderful examination of the things we remember from childhood, the feelings and visuals that get stuck in our heads even if we didn't completely understand the context. Roma is hauntingly lovely.

  #8  
  Game Night  

There were so few reasons to laugh in 2018 that every moment of levity was welcome, and few were as effective as Game Night. It's a weirdly violent movie, but one that manages to make the violence cheery. Its relentless energy almost never flags, even when the film veers off into detours so unimaginably off-kilter, silly and overwhelmingly unbelievable that a lesser film would lose us. Game Night makes it all work, and its anchored by wonderful performances, not just from Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman in the leads as the organizers of a close-knit group of game enthusiasts, but especially by Jesse Plemons in what may well go down as one of the screen's really great comedy roles.

  #7  

Quiet, gloomy, unnerving and at times just plain weird, First Reformed hinges everything on a brooding and intense performance by Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, a man who has lost everything a man can lose, including whatever definition he has of faith. The irony, then, is that Toller has become the pastor of a small, historic church, and as he reaches out to a parishioner in trouble, he begins to discover a number of wider worlds that he never realized existed. Writer-director Paul Schrader's drama requires patience and effort, especially when it moves into a couple of unexpected detours. It also demands to be viewed with different eyes than we usually bring to the movies. But its many layers are rewarding, and the film as a whole is a welcome throwback to the highly personal, auteur-driven and deeply specific psychological dramas of the 1970s.

  #6  

Message movies aren't supposed to be fun, but Spike Lee's best movie in a very long while combines both a sobering and terrifying message with sensational moviemaking, resulting in a bang-up film that is a joy to watch ... even if it was better in the moment than in the memory for me.  The movie's torn-from-the-headlines coda will likely not age particularly well, but the same can't be said for a sequence involving an attempted bombing, which is the kind of scene that deserves to be dissected and studied for years. It is pure filmmaking, something that was largely missing from the movies in 2018, and it is dizzyingly good.

  #5  

Of course the nostalgia is what makes it work. I imagine anyone who hasn't seen Mister Rogers' Neighborhood would come away from Won't You Be My Neighbor? slightly befuddled that America put so much trust into one man. But we did, and what makes Won't You Be My Neighbor? so special as a documentary is that it takes measure of the weight of that trust. Fred Rogers didn't necessarily intend teaching children to be a lifelong pursuit, much less his primary legacy, and he went through more than a few crises of faith and confidence as he became the most beloved man in America. It's a blast to watch Won't You Be My Neighbor? for the clips and vintage film footage; it's an education to watch it and discover just how much went into the show; but it's a revelation to watch it and learn about the very real human being who was Fred Rogers. It's hardly a groundbreaking documentary, but it's a very, very good one, indeed.

  #4  

Mary Poppins Returns represents everything that's wrong with today's Disney: It's a bloated retread that trades off of an earlier era of originality and imagination. It shouldn't work at all ... but it does, and wonderfully well. Though it tries far too hard to walk precisely in the footsteps of its better predecessor, director Rob Marshall and star Emily Blunt manage to overcome their considerable obstacles to deliver a film with considerable charm while maintaining the melancholy undertones of the original. There's a lot here for children to enjoy, but there's even more for parents to appreciate, especially as the film explores the inherent disappointment that comes with growing up. As a permanent adult, Mary, the film hints, knows more than her fair share of the emotion, but nonetheless she persists. It's something of an unexpected joy to have her back, even though you get the sense that with every remake and reboot, Disney is pushing its luck.

  #3  
  Searching  

A thriller needs to thrill, and Searching does that tremendously well. While it didn't get the attention of 2017's Get Out, I'd argue that Searching is an even more riveting thriller that arguably lacks the style and import of Jordan Peele's movie but is more flat-out entertaining. It also comes closest to mimicking the way we experience life in the early 21st century, told entirely -- and I mean, entirely -- through the filter of second screens.  It can be a disorienting experience: We're watching a movie screen filled with other digital screens, and that experience will be amplified at home in a way that may actually further benefit the movie. But at its core, it's a captivating, relentless thriller about a father searching for his daughter, and John Cho holds it together with a performance that is both technically impressive (consider what he's doing, playing the emotions on so many screens) and emotionally honest. Searching is likely the best thriller you didn't see in 2018: Now is your chance to change that.

  #2  
  Eighth Grade  

Eighth Grade is a flat-out joy. This little film about the smallest of small subjects -- a girl trying to make her way through eighth grade -- but about the biggest of big themes. It tackles alienation, success, failure, family, love, sex, body image, self-confidence, loneliness and anxiety, topics most films about grown-ups shy away from, but which Eighth Grade knows are really the only things anyone cares about anyway. Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) might be 2018's most memorable character, and writer-director Bo Burnham makes her in to neither a caricature nor an irritant; she's entirely herself, which, the movie argues, is the best thing anyone could possibly be. She just doesn't know it -- and isn't that the way with all of us? Eighth Grade can be difficult to watch, but that's because it knows that every single one of the people watching it has felt like (or still feels like) Kayla. So, grin and bear it. You'll be glad you did. "Gucci!"

  #1  

Oh, come on, you're probably thinking. There's no way a super-hero movie could be your favorite movie of the year, much less an animated super-hero movie. Come on! You don't even like super-hero movies. Generally speaking, that's true. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a genuinely special movie, one that takes its story seriously, treats its characters with humor and respect, and above all rethinks and redefines movie making -- not just animated movies, but movies in general. This is a film that soars. It has a happy and precocious spirit. It is filled with excitement, and takes a real joy in being something marvelously different. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the closest thing you'll ever see to a comic book that has sprung to life, and maybe the highest praise that can be afforded it -- beyond the fact that it's so vastly superior to any of the other films in the decade-long spate of super-hero movies -- is that after just a few minutes you forget you're watching an animated film at all. You're watching pop art in action, you're watching a story that is at once familiar and new, and you're watching the work of filmmakers and artists who clearly love what they're doing. If you haven't seen it, you must. And if you have avoided seeing it because you don't like super-hero movies, well, neither do I. But this film, more than any other of 2018, is one I loved.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

Catching Up: "The Wife"

 ½ 

The basic premise of The Wife is played as an untold secret, both in this film and in Meg Wolitzer's original novel. On the page, the revelation works, but on the screen it plays like a tease: In hindsight we learn why Glenn Close's Joan Castleman seems so agitated and irritable, and then we know the truth we can marvel at how it was all right there on Close's face. But this would have been a vastly better, more interesting and more fulfilling movie had we known the truth right from the start.

The novel begins with Joan making up her mind about a huge and life-altering decision, then slowly reveals why this decision is the only emotionally rational choice.  The movie saves that the declaration of that decision for its climax, so that everything leading up to it is just one long tease.  One one level, it works, but on another it feels so much like a gimmick that it's easy to resent The Wife for not playing fair either with its audience or with its characters.

Joan is the wife of Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a successful writer of highbrow literary fiction who, as the film begins, is informed that he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The movie takes place in 1992, mostly because the story at its center -- the one presented as a secret but that would be so much better if it were the open and fiery heart of the film -- begins some 35 years earlier, when Joe was Joan's writing instructor at an eastern college.

Joan wants to be a writer, but Joe discourages her, as does an unsuccessful author played with boozy resentment by Elizabeth McGovern.  Writers, she insists are meant to be read, and manuscripts are meant to be published. In the mid-century man's world where Joan works as an editorial assistant, there's no way, both Joe and the author maintain, Joan could ever be a success.

Never mind the female writers who had already risen to prominence, who were successful on their own terms, never mind Virginia Woolf and Harper Lee and Carson McCullers, The Wife hinges upon a 1960s woman's willingness to submit to the patriarchy of the publishing world. In its numerous flashbacks (in which Close's character is played by Close's own daughter, Annie Starke), Joan is presented as talented, timid and afraid.

Yet present-day Joan is none of those things, though she is deeply resentful of her husband's success, as is her son David (Max Irons), who accompanies them on the trip to Stockholm to claim the Nobel Prize.  Also along for the ride is Joe's would-be biographer, played by Christian Slater as an irritating sycophant -- though let it be said that Joe himself is an irritating narcissist.

It's a wonder Joan has stayed with him all these years; he offers almost no affection toward her, even in their opening lovemaking scene, which is played merely as a way for him to stave off his anxiety over the Nobel committee's selection.  Joe has no awareness of anyone but himself, and though Pryce plays such a pompous pseudo-intellect with aplomb, the film leaves us no question of why Joan is always gritting her teeth, sighing and standing a few feet behind her husband.

If the story itself doesn't quite work in The Wife, what does work, and very well, is the film's observations of the quotidian struggles of marriage.  Joan's resentments seem well-founded even before we learn the big reveal, and Joe's complete lack of awareness of his own behaviors ring very true.  The best scene comes when the two have a totally justified screaming match that's interrupted by a phone call to tell them that they're grandparents; the way their long-festering anger melts away into a rare kind of love is beautiful and both actors play it perfectly.

The Wife is, above all, a showcase for Close, a six-time Oscar nominee who has never won.  It's designed as an effort to remedy that, and she does transcend the showiness of the role and make Joan into a deeply wounded and sympathetic character despite the weird insistence of both the screenplay and the source novel that Joan and Joe never had any option for doing what they did.

Strangely, though, it's their son David who ends up being the audience's best surrogate: He's exasperated, suspicious, irritated, confused, intrigued and left to do little except watch two mighty personalities go toe-to-toe with one another as they continue trying to hide a secret that's neither as shocking nor as necessary as it purports to be.



Viewed December 29, 2018 -- DVD