Sunday, December 30, 2018

Catching Up: "The Wife"


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

Friday, December 28, 2018

"Mary Poppins Returns"


As Mary herself might say, there's no point sugar-coating it: Mary Poppins Returns is far from practically perfect. It's eminently enjoyable, and there are times when it's positively poignant, but perfection? That belongs solely to the 1964 original.

It's one of the primary flaws of Mary Poppins Returns, along with extreme over-length, unmemorable songs, and throwback production values that have resulted in a roadshow film in a multiplex era. Those are its drawbacks, and they aren't quibbles.

Let's get this out of the way, too: Emily Blunt isn't Julie Andrews, and to compare her is completely unfair and entirely inevitable. Is it wrong to note that Blunt has a perfectly lovely singing voice that would never, not in a million years (no matter who she was) be capable of matching Andrews' preternatural range. Unfair, I know, I know, I know, but if you're going to make a sequel to Mary Poppins, that is what's going to happen, and it only matters because when Blunt sings she is fun and bouncy but anyone who's grown up with the original knows what's missing.

I feel I must again excuse this kind of criticism, but Mary herself might tell me to quit talking now and just get on with it.

Still, a few more faults linger: Lin-Manuel Miranda lacks almost any screen presence, which is odd considering how electrifying he proved to be on stage. He's just ... nice. He's fine. Then there's the biggest problem of all: Mary Poppins Returns dares so little from a story standpoint; it is, beat for beat, basically a remake of the original, following the basic outlines so closely that there's a loopy relative who sings on the ceiling (played by no less than Meryl Streep); not one but two musical numbers that blend live action and animation; and an elaborate, wildly overlong dance scene with Mary and a bunch of working-class Londoners (lamplighters instead of chimney sweeps, but they've still got smudged faces and big smiles).

It all feels entirely familiar ... and the crazy and almost unbelievable thing is that, by and large, it works. It shouldn't, God knows. But there's Mary Poppins, all snippy, irritable, sharp-edged and lovely just as she's always been, and she's ready to rescue a family in trouble.

Even the family is the same as before: Jane and Michael Banks, who are now grown and living in a rather surprisingly integrated London of the 1930s, in what Britain called the Great Slump and Americans called the Great Depression. They're still in the big townhome at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, next door to Admiral Boom. Ellen is still their maid and Miss Lark still likes to walk in the park with ... well, poor Andrew didn't last through the last 20 years, I guess.

Michael (Ben Whishaw) is the father now, a widower since his wife died a year earlier, leaving him with not two but three children this time around, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Jane (Emily Mortimer) spends a lot of time helping out Michael, and he needs it: His grief has become a distraction, he's forgotten to pay the mortgage and they Bankses are going to lose the house soon, to the hands of the greedy banker Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth).

Who can help? Why, Mary Poppins, of course, summoned by the seemingly magical kite that the Michael, Jane and their parents flew in the climax of the original.  She's back to teach gentle lessons about imagination and acceptance and all of the kinds of things that Mary Poppins does best, and she does it with the knowing winks of the original.

As the movie bounces along from lackluster song to lackluster song (they're all by Marc Shaiman, with Richard M. Sherman listed as "musical consultant," perhaps because the movie soars to life most vividly when it recalls the indelible music of he and his brother, Robert), there's every reason to dislike it, but Mary Poppins Returns does something quite astonishing: It refuses our disapproval. Like Mary herself, it simply ignores the criticisms and insists on being, well, Mary Poppins.

Yes, the original is superior in every way, but Mary Poppins Returns is so superior in craft and performance to most other movies around that it floats above even while we note every single objection we could possibly have to it.  Yes, the songs are dull, but they are jaunty enough to keep us occupied, and every performer (even Miranda, who is so weirdly unmemorable) sings, dances, smiles and cries with absolute conviction.

Perhaps the most welcome relief is that, just like the original, Mary Poppins Returns finds its true soul in the story of a man overwhelmed by a life he can't control. Just as Mary Poppins belonged as much to Andrews as to the under-appreciated talents of David Tomlinson as the beleaguered, disappointed Mr. Banks, the sequel belongs to Blunt as much as to Whishaw, who is a different kind of adult. If his father was overly confident and rather too proud, Michael is scared, overwhelmed, and saddened that the life he has is so far from the life he imagined.

Michael feels at once appropriate for the Depression-era setting of the film and perfectly in synch with a modern father, shocked that his life has left him with so much less than his own parents.  Jane, presented here as an activist just as her mother once was, takes a much-reduced role here; call it a patriarchal flaw in the film or just a result of telling a story from a different era, but Mary Poppins Returns is once again about a father learning some basic life skills. Whishaw can be a little whiny and cowardly, but mostly he strikes all the right notes that balance the bluntness (no pun intended) of Mary herself.  A scene in which she listens while he collapses, and allows him to express his pain, is exquisite for the way Blunt, in particular, plays her own hurt.  The ageless Mary knows how easy her life is compared with those she helps.

There's a lot going here, probably too much in most every way.  A little less of Mary Poppins would have been more successful for her return.  She didn't need to come back.  But maybe, despite all of our resistance and every objection to her acidic sweetness and old-fashioned emotional common sense, we actually needed her.

By the time the Bankses go back to the park to celebrate as a family, by the time Mary Poppins once again realizes the family no longer needs her (after just a week this time!), by the time the music swells and Mary flies off, I found myself overcoming my initial eye rolling to discover a tear or two rolling down my cheek.  Maybe I'm just an old softie.

Yeah, I'm as surprised as anyone by that. Leave it to Mary Poppins to tear down those walls of resistance and force her way, once again, into our hearts. Turns out, there's still space for her in there.

Viewed December 28, 2018 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Catching Up: "Eighth Grade"


Hey, Guys!

It's me, John.

I want to talk to you today about Eighth Grade.  I mean, the movie.  Because, I mean, who would want to talk about eighth grade the actual experience, right?  Like, you might want to talk about it, but that would mean you need to think about it and no one wants to think about eighth grade ever again, right?  I mean, of course you think about it because it's, like, part of your life, and you can't not think about part of your life.  Except maybe eighth grade you can, because is there anyone on earth, and I mean like anyone on the entire planet, who would want to be 13 years old and be in eighth grade again?

You've got pimples. Even if you have great skin, you have pimples. Except two girls in the school.  One of the girls has perfect hair that she plays with and primps all day and she wears makeup like something from a magazine, and her parents buy her all the nice clothes and she lives in a great house.  And another one of the girls is her best friend and they're always together and she does everything the other girl tells her to do, and because of that everyone wants to be her because they know they can't be the Perfect Girl.

No one is ever that girl.  Just like no one is ever the guy who is already over six feet tall and has hair on his chest.  No one will ever be that girl or that guy, and honestly they've peaked in eighth grade. Seriously. That's sad.

So, in this movie I saw called Eighth Grade there is a girl who is absolutely not the Perfect Girl.

Her name is Kayla Day. She makes YouTube videos on subjects like how to be yourself and how to "put yourself out there."  The thing is, Kayla has no idea how to be herself and no idea how to put herself out there. And because she's in eighth grade she doesn't realize that no one ever knows how to do those things. That everyone is faking it, now and forever.

Kayla's dad is not very helpful. He tries to be, but, GOD, HE IS EMBARRASSING even if they're just sitting around and eating dinner on Friday night. Kayla's mom left them. Now it's just the two of them. Her dad loves Kayla more than you could ever believe.

So, yeah, Kayla makes these videos and no one watches them. At the end of every video she tells people to share and to subscribe, but the videos each have one view. Or no views. No views happened when her dad got too busy to watch, or forgot.  Her dad really loves Kayla.  He thinks she is great.  No one else does, especially not Kayla.

Kayla's school has a Perfect Girl. Kayla gets invited to her pool party (the girl doesn't invite Kayla; her mom does). Some of the boys there turn their eyelids inside out and have breath-holding contests. The girls wear bikinis and stay in the sun. Kayla doesn't know what to do. Kayla says her life is like this: She feels the way you do when you're waiting in line for the roller coaster.

She feels that way all the time. She doesn't want to be doing what she's doing. She's afraid. It's always like that.

She never feels the way you do after you get off the roller coaster.

Eighth Grade is about discovering that you might never feel that way, and being okay with that.  Eighth Grade is about eighth graders, maybe, but not really.  You're not in eighth grade, right?  But it's about you.  A version of you.  A version of you that you remember all too well.

It was written and directed by Bo Burnham, who's only 28 years old himself, so maybe he remembers a little more than others what eighth grade was like.  Or maybe he just has a whole lot of empathy and sees real beauty in the world, in places where no one else notices.

Kayla is played by Elsie Fisher, and her character feels so real that this could be a documentary, though it's not. Everyone in this movie is so wonderful you forget you're watching a movie, really. I mean, you always know you're watching a movie because you're in your living room or a movie theater or whatever, so obviously you're watching a movie. Duh. It's just that some rare movies do this thing where you completely forget that what you're seeing on screen is made up. And you don't really want it to end.

Eighth Grade is that kind of movie.

Okay, well, anyway. That's what I thought of Eighth Grade. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, then share it with your friends and subscribe to my blog, okay?  Yeah. Okay. So, thanks.


Bye, guys!


Viewed December 20, 2018 -- Amazon Prime

Saturday, December 22, 2018

"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"


The basic premise of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be well-known to comic-book fans, but was completely new to me and seemed, based on the trailers, complex and vaguely off-putting. It is complex, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is anything but off-putting. It's exhilarating. It's exciting. It's everything a super-hero movie should be but, if you ask me, rarely has been since 1978 when Superman: The Movie created and then seemingly broke the mold.

Who would have guessed that what super-hero movies needed to be was animated? I mean, when you get right down to it, they've basically been animated since the advent of CGI, but they've never embraced their roots as what are, in some ways, really just freeze frames of fantastically drawn animated stories in the first place.  It makes sense, so why has it taken so long?  No matter: It has taken as long as it has taken, but finally, finally super-hero movies make sense.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels both authentic and new, intimate and expansive, genuinely impressive in the way the overproduced computer-generated landscapes of the "live-action" movies never feel.  In those movies, no matter how persuasive the imagery tries to be, it can never completely fool the brain into believing that what's on screen is real.

This movie does something entirely different: It is a movie-sized comic book, and watching it is like being immersed into the frame that's on the page. Every frame is suffused with remarkable detail that straddles the line between movies and comics, with subtle half-tone dots and sharply drawn edges on the characters that are different than we're used to seeing in an animated movie, but that are nonetheless familiar. There's a depth to the images but also a welcome flatness -- don't get me wrong, this is about as far from a flat, two-dimensional movie as you can get, but artistically it welcomes any chance to be like a living comic book as it can get.  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is genuinely artistic and genuinely innovative.

Since I am not well-versed in comic books, I won't embarrass myself by trying to recount the story. Instead, let me tell you the things I loved about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse:
  • Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is real and charming, and his transformation into a hero is remarkable for the way he never feels entirely at home in his eventual self; this movie works best as a coming-of-age story, with a boy who gets a glimpse of the man he is to become, and learns just enough about adulthood to simultaneously excite and scare him.
  • Miles might be the very best super-hero character since Clark Kent. He's in awe of his own powers, doesn't entirely trust them, doesn't really even want them, but understands their importance. I left the movie wanting very much to know more about him.
  • The relationship between Miles and his father (Bryan Tyree Henry) is disarmingly affecting -- and not in the lush and romanticized way of classic Disney animated films, but in the way live-action movies always try to be about children and parents and almost never are.
  • Newcomers are treated with respect. While I can only assume the movie plays enormously well for those who know all the nuances of the story, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse goes out of its way to make those unfamiliar with Spider-Man feel welcome and comfortable; everything we need to know is up there on screen -- something that most definitely cannot be said for the most recent spate of super-hero movies.
  • The supporting cast is astonishingly good, from the intentionally silly Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) to the seen-it-all Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) to the alluring and clever "Gwanda"/Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) to the reluctant alternate Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), not to mention the villains, Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn) and Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) -- animated films have gone overboard on stunt casting to no real effect in recent years, but this cast is as good as any live-action film.
I could go on. Apart from some minor grumbles about the length of it all and fight scenes that go on too long. Even the astonishing visuals can't save those scenes from feeling like we've been here before.  But I guess a huge part of the reason I mildly resented these scenes is because aside from their beauty -- and this is a staggeringly beautiful movie -- they took precious time away from being with characters I grew to admire and love.

Still, the action is why movies like this exist, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse definitely gets the action right.  Not to mention everything else.

Viewed December 22, 2018 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Thursday, December 20, 2018



At two critical points in Alfonso Cuarón's nostalgic and melancholy Roma, characters go to the movies, and Cuarón emphasizes the scope and grandeur of the cinema and the outsized role that moviegoing plays in many lives. Earlier in the film, he has shown us a family cuddling and laughing together as they watch a silly sitcom on their tiny TV, but the movies ... ah! The movies! They do something altogether different: They incite passion, they mark milestones.

So, wow, here's the irony: Roma can be seen almost exclusively on Netflix. Cuarón didn't actually make the movie for the streaming service, but the rapacious Netflix scooped it up after production and effectively locked it away from all but a handful of movie theaters in just a few big cities.

By all means, watch Roma on Netflix, because it should be seen by anyone who says they like movies. But Roma is more or less the antithesis of the Netflix style; it's long, slow and takes its own sweet time getting to its story, which it finally comes at in sort of a roundabout way, almost sneaking up on it.  Roma is made for the singular experience of sitting in a movie theater and staring at a big screen.

You'll put up arguments to that idea, no doubt: The movies aren't what they used to be. They cost $15 for a ticket, but Netflix is only $10 a month. People use their cell phones and talk. They arrive late and munch on popcorn and they're downright rude. Going to the movies is a terrible experience! Netflix saves us from all that!

Yes, Netflix at home, where you can pause the movie and come back to it later, never mind that you're screwing with the very rhythm the director intended.  Netflix at home, where you can check your phone anytime you want while the movie plays.  Netflix at home, where you can get up and go grab a snack and go to the bathroom and have a conversation while the movie plays, because they're in their own home, and they can do whatever they want there.

So, yeah, the movie theater may have horribly behaved audiences from time to time -- but, guess what?  No audience is more horribly behaved than the average person when watching a movie at home.  The living room experience was simply not designed for long, concentrated attention, and the movies were simply not designed for the living room experience.

Go ahead, watch Roma on Netflix, but I fear that there's a good chance many viewers will give up before the opening credits are even over, before Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is finished scrubbing down the family's driveway as this black-and-white film with no musical score meanders through its story and takes a good 45 minutes to find itself.  When it does, it's moving, sometimes harrowing and painful, and hypnotically compelling.

Roma is named after Colonia Roma, the Mexico City neighborhood in which it takes place, a neighborhood and a house very much like the one Cuarón lived in when he was a boy. One of the boys in the family for whom Cleo works may be a mildly fictionalized Cuarón, it's hard to say, but word has it that the set of the family's house looks exactly like the house in which Cuarón grew up.

Cleo is one of the family's two maids; she and her compatriot are dark and ethnic, while the family is caucasian and upper class.  The mother, Sofia, learns early on that her husband is leaving her, but she maintains an air of grace for the sake of her family. Cleo, whose housekeeping skills seem of questionable efficiency, quickly becomes the grounding that the remaining family needs.

She does have her own life outside of the family, but it's seen in maddeningly fleeting bursts, which might be the movie's biggest shortcoming: It should be Cleo's story, but we learn less about her than almost anyone else. Her life outside of Roma leads to Cleo getting pregnant, visiting doctors, getting reassurance from the family that they won't fire her, and participating in a holiday getaway that ends when fireworks ignite a field.  It's one of the movie's most dreamlike scenes, with men and women filling tiny buckets to try to extinguish an out-of-control fire, one of the metaphors that Cuarón loves.

All throughout the background of Roma the specter of angry, violent political unrest looms. But Cleo has little education and a simple view of the world, while the kids who are frequently in the foreground of the shots, know nothing about the world outside their windows. Roma is very much a film about innocence -- not merely innocence lost, but the real and constant need people have to remain innocent long after they have learned hard truths.

Roma is filled to the brim with visual effects of the "invisible" sort (that opening shot of cleaning the driveway among them), and Cuarón makes the most out of his visual prowess.  In shots of Cleo and the family on the streets of Mexico City, Cuarón fills every corner of the frame with some sort of movement and half-glimpsed little drama, and even the most common experiences, like shopping for furniture, hold the possibility of being a life-or-death moment.

A lot happens in Roma, but very little in a common cinematic narrative way.  This is a movie that washes over you like the waves that Cleo braves in the film's climactic scenes, and it's a movie that demands attention and patience.  It also boasts, in lieu of that musical score, an extraordinary soundscape that pulsates with the life that is ever-present in the film.

You get the sense that Cuarón desperately wanted Roma to be experienced on the big screen, not just in the way he made the movie but in the way movies play such an integral role in the story. And it is, indeed, a movie to savor.  It is a bold experiment, even an unintentional one, to see how much of the film's lush artistry comes through on the small screen, even a 70" home theater, because watching something on TV at home and watching something in a cinema are two entirely different experiences.  It's ironic how much Roma knows that to be true.

Viewed December 19, 2018 -- Laemmle North Hollywood


Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Vox Lux"


Vox Lux has no lack of ideas the way that Donald Trump has no lack of words. There are a lot of them. They are not coherent or productive.

To be clear, any comparisons with certain White House occupants end there, though it's the lack of articulation and the insistence that something important and profound is being said that linger as the common points.

Vox Lux addresses an almost staggering array of ideas, but writer-director Brady Corbet can never settle on any one (or two, or three, or four) it really wants to explore, though let it be said he meanders very stylishly.  The movie begins in 1999 with a horrifying incidence of violence in a high school, as a trenchcoated boy shoots up a classroom and puts a bullet into the neck of Celeste Montgomery. She is played as a teenager by Raffey Cassidy, who had a major role in last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and who seems in touch with her dark side.

Celeste is gravely wounded but survives, and writes a sullen and weirdly disconnected song that we are meant to believe -- through the courtesy of leaden narration by Willem Dafoe -- captures the hearts of Americans with its emotional honesty.  It's a terrible song, but that is beside the point, because somehow it makes Celeste into a pop star.  She also has a lot of survivor's guilt, sibling issues, religious issues and co-dependency issues, but thanks to the leering attention of a manager (Jude Law), she moves out of her dreary home in Staten Island to a dreary Los Angeles, where she's just about to shoot her first music video when, simultaneously, she gets pregnant, hears about the 9/11 terrorist attack and discovers her sister (Stacy Martin) has been sleeping with the manager ... and then the movie shifts gears and fast-forwards 16 years with no explanation.

Vox Lux is separated into sections with on-screen cards that are as pretentious as the scrolling, pointedly serifed opening titles. The sections have names like "Prelude" and "Regenesis," and the first section ("Genesis," naturally) is nowhere near as intriguing as the description makes it sounds. It's morose and plodding, and the actors are posed to look like they're in a very literary student film.

The second half perks up as Natalie Portman takes over for Cassidy, who shifts unexpectedly into the role of Celeste's daughter.  And as Portman comes on screen, Celeste changes from a bland and bored quasi-celebrity to a loud, abrasive caricature whose presence would be grating except that she at least makes Vox Lux into something mildly interesting.

The movie picks up as Celeste is getting ready to open an arena-sized tour back in her hometown, and she's doing a day of publicity in a Manhattan hotel. But her mind isn't on the show or the media, it's on a terrorist attack that has just taken place in Eastern Europe, in which gunmen have opened fire on sunbathers at a beach while wearing costumes that replicate the ones Celeste wore in her first music video.

OK, let's pause for a moment: Vox Lux is, variably, about gun violence and terrorism, pop music, celebrity culture, teen sex, wealth, drug abuse (did I mention Celeste is an alcoholic and drug addict?), mothers and daughters, sibling rivalry, and the media. Yet, it's about none of these things. Even as Portman impressively blusters her way through the film's complicated long takes and some impressive monologues, even as she wears outrageous costumes and makeup, and even as she snorts cocaine and stumbles around backstage, Vox Lux ends up being about nothing at all.

It's as vacuous as one of the mindless pop songs it simultaneously worships and satirizes, and its as shallow and repetitive as the EDM-tinged music performed by Celeste -- whose success is given a last-second and totally ridiculous explanation.  She's presented as an over-the-top Lady Gaga/Katy Perry-style pop star, but Vox Lux offers no insight into the creative process or into the human being behind the image.

Vox Lux imagines, I think, that it has a lot to say.  The trouble is, as we've seen so often in the past couple of years, that is not the same as saying a lot of things. Volume and substance are two entirely different things.

Viewed Dec. 15, 2018 -- AMC Burbank 16


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Catching Up: "First Reformed"


In a small, historic church in upstate New York, which was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) conducts services for a half-dozen or so parishioners. His heart does not seem in it, but since losing his son in Iraq and watching his marriage crumble, his heart doesn't seem in anything.

He is filled with doubt. He does not even trust his own thoughts. He writes them down in a journal, and promises himself to be completely honest, to write everything he thinks, to scratch out nothing and to tell his story truthfully.  Occasionally, he tears pages out of his journal and burns them.

There is nothing he can trust. He recites the prayers (though admits he himself cannot pray) and speaks kindly to the people who visit the church -- "the souvenir shop," as it's become known to its owners, a mega-church that seats 5,000 people -- but he does not have kind thoughts.  He also knows he is dying.  If you were to bring that up with him, he would probably sigh and say, "Everyone is dying," but the blood in his urine and the pain from his stomach, which leaves him doubled over and retching into the toilet, means he is dying faster than others.

Death does not mean much to him. He sees and contemplates it all the time, and it brings no answers, no closure, it just ... is. First Reformed is about a man who has retreated so far within himself that even his search for God feels empty and meaningless.  It is best for him to think about nothing, which is largely what he does.

Then, he meets a young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is married to a deeply troubled man (Philip Ettinger). They are both environmental activists, though really it's only the husband who takes the activism part seriously. And he takes it very seriously. Mary is pregnant and her husband wants her to have an abortion. His reasoning is that the world has been ruined; the science is real, the data incontrovertible -- the planet has been damaged, maybe irreversibly, so how could you possibly bring a child into that world?  Would that child ever be able to forgive you?

And then, to Ernst, the question arrives with more force: Can God forgive us for what we've done to His creation?

Mary's husband seems to make valid points. Ernst, who lives up to the German translation of his name with vigor, becomes alive during the conversation, which he calls "exhilarating." The passion and conviction of Mary's husband are like nothing he has seen in a very long time.

And then, something shocking happens, something that sends the film reeling in another direction altogether, and begins, slowly, to shake Ernst awake from the stupor in which he's been living. Increasingly he is scared of the words he writes in his journal. He cannot be honest, because his version of honesty was one in which he was examining his previous self. First Reformed examines the moment in which a man becomes different than he was before.

Then, in one of the most unexpected moments in recent movie memory, Ernst is visited by Mary and together they have what might be termed an out-of-body experience. She calls it the "Magical Mystery Tour," and it is deeply physical but it is not sexual. This is not a movie about sex, it is a movie about, if anything, why people even bother with things like sex and love and hope. The very act of connecting with Mary opens Ernst's mind to a deeper truth, one her husband and she have been trying to tell him.

The movie veers tonally, artistically and narratively into a new direction by trying to depict what this awakening must feel like for Ernst, how it makes him feel like he is floating on air, how he suddenly sees the way things are connected.

Already, Ernst has been placed in an uncomfortable position of having to defend the very faith he has been doubting: A big anniversary event is coming up for the church he runs, and it's sponsored by the company that was so bitterly opposed by Mary's husband and his fellow activists.  What Ernst has not yet learned is that the man's death has left an opportunity to oppose this company in a way that is shocking and disturbing, and as Ernst explores this unlikely chance, First Reformed starts making some deeply uncomfortable observations about religion, faith and conviction.

Those questions lead it to an ending that is shocking for both its content and its abruptness. Very likely, you will come to the end of First Reformed and feel cheated, or at the very least confused. You may look at the screen and give a slight "Hmpf."

There are, it appears, cinematic precedents for First Reformed, and writer-director Paul Schrader, who also wrote disturbing and complicated films like Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, was inspired by a specific form of filmmaking called the "transcendental style" (about which he wrote a famous book) and by specific films by directors like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. That is interesting to a certain segment of the filmgoing population, but what is important in the end is not whether you understand the origins of First Reformed but what you see on screen.

What is there is haunting, troubling, hypnotic and, there's no doubt about it, puzzling. But its central question of whether God can forgive his own creations for destroying what he has designed has remarkable relevance, and opens up a fascinating story of one man's realization that trying to answer the question can have impossibly fearsome consequences.

Viewed December 11, 2018


Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Green Book"


Is this really 2018? Watching Green Book makes the question relevant: Here is a big studio awards-season film about racism in America made by white men and told from the perspective of a white man. Two years after Moonlight won Best Picture, Green Book seems related far less to that film than to the Best Picture winner from almost three decades ago, Driving Miss Daisy.

It is heartfelt, warm and touching. That is sincere praise. It's engaging and sweet, very well made, eminently enjoyable. Does it seem at all odd that as we approach the second decade of the 21st century, Hollywood still finds it impossible to make a movie about America's race problem that is something other than warm, touching, sweet and heartfelt and seen through the eyes of the straight white man?

Green Book would be something much more than problematic if it weren't for the presence of Mahershala Ali, who delivers a performance that is rich, nuanced, insightful, careful, contemplative, complex and human, qualities that don't seem intrinsic to the words he speaks. The screenplay, which is credited to Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly, doesn't know what to make of the character Ali plays, the real-life musician Dr. Don Shirley.

Here are some facts about Dr. Shirley, which are briefly recounted in the film: He was 2 when he started playing the piano. He was 9 when his mother died and he was invited to study music theory in Russia. You read that right: 9 years old. He received a doctorate in music, psychology and liturgical studies. He worked as a psychologist. He was taken under the wing of Arthur Fiedler.

He was an astounding, fascinating person.

And he's not the main character of Green Book.

No, instead, Green Book is about a boorish, uneducated racist Italian man who becomes a better person when Shirley hires him to be his driver on a concert tour through the Deep South. Shirley believes that if he commits himself to touring the South, he will change hearts and minds. This motivation is explained in the film not by Shirley but by one of the white musicians who is part of the Don Shirley Trio.

Ali plays Shirley with fierce commitment, with passion and complexity -- even though for the first two-thirds of the movie he's meant to be little more than the comic foil to Viggo Mortensen's Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (whose son wrote the film). He's prim, precise, fussy, effete, yet somehow Ali makes him feel deeply alive and compassionate, despite the movie's weird insistence that this isn't really his story. Green Book offers absolutely no insight into Shirley, though through some extraordinary miracle of acting Ali makes him believable and three-dimensional despite almost never gets a moment on screen to himself; Tony, with his cartoonish New York Italian accent and insatiable appetite, is always there to steal the spotlight.

Green Book seems endlessly fascinated with Tony's private life, with his sweet and patient wife (Linda Cardellini), with his lack of education and his enormous belly -- but the groundbreaking, multi-lingual musician who refuses to accept his country's hateful racism is the secondary player. He calm and steady force in the backseat who encourages Tony to be better, to exhibit a semblance of the self-awareness that the musician seems to have in endless supply.

But somehow, Ali finds a depth that is only hinted at in the screenplay itself. His may be the performance of the year, if only because he does so much with so little.  Green Book is at its best as it watches the friendship between the two men develop, and when it's just the two men on screen there are times when the movie is downright wonderful.

Keep in mind, though, that Green Book is named for "The Negro Motorist Green Book," which listed the places that black Americans could safely travel during a time of open discrimination. Green Book is about an America that made it impossible for someone as educated, accomplished and talented as Shirley to exist safely. It is about a deeply disturbing, shocking, shameful period in America's history that is not as far removed as we may think -- never mind the fact that as a throwaway plot point Green Book also notes that Shirley was gay, or at least bisexual.

The ways that Shirley was disallowed to be himself, the ways in which he experienced unthinkable discrimination, and the sense of self that gave him extraordinary presence despite every disadvantage, is not the point of Green Book. This movie isn't about those things.

Instead, Green Book is about a white man who is so racist that at the beginning of the film he throws away two glasses because black men have drunk from them, and it's about how his experience with Dr. Don Shirley teaches him how to open his mind and heart to the humanity of a black man. It's about how his casual racism doesn't really count because it's not as bad as what happened in the South, and it's about how Tony becomes a better man by seeing how Shirley is treated.

There's a moment when the two men find themselves in a "sundown" town, where black people were not allowed on the street after sunset. They get arrested, and when Shirley insists on making his one phone call, it turns out the person he calls is Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general of the United States.

Green Book isn't about how Don Shirley became a man who knew the attorney general and his brother, the president, but still couldn't sit in a restaurant with his white driver.  Green Book isn't about that man, it's about how Tony learns that when he accepts Shirley as an equal, his heart grows bigger and his life gets better.

The most frustrating part of Green Book is that despite all that, Green Book is not terrible. It is affecting. It's enjoyable. But is "enjoyable" the best we can expect from a movie about a subject like this?  Green Book is a crowd pleaser, make no doubt -- even while it leaves the most relevant, vibrant, interesting and meaningful part of itself in the back seat.

Viewed December 9, 2018 -- AMC Sunset 5


Saturday, December 1, 2018

"The Favourite"


Yorgos Lanthimos knows that Dostoyevsky's old pronouncement about happy families is irrelevant in today's world -- we've moved far beyond mere happiness or pain and into freakish levels of suffering. Look around and be brave enough to call it as you see it: It may look like taunting, teasing and bullying, but it goes well beyond that. We're killing each other, engaging in torture for the sport of it.

Lanthimos makes movies like an ethnographer who doesn't understand the language but merely observes the results, and he applies filmmaking styles that don't seem to match the obscenities he is depicting on screen. The Lobster offers the nervous energy of a satirical comedy even while it puts the main character into impossible (literally) ethical quandaries. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a vile and hateful film, yet I've seen it twice, because in depicting its depraved story, Lanthimos seems brave, even sad for his knowledge of just how far people will go while seeming to remain absolutely sane.

Which brings us to The Favourite, Lanthimos' second film in as many years, and one that is more forthright than The Lobster in acknowledging that it's trying to be funny and maybe even more sinister than Sacred Deer since the victims of its cruelties aren't just a family but, ultimately, an entire country and political system.

Whether its historically accurate or not is beyond my abilities, but The Favourite seems to go to extraordinarily lengths to depict the court of Queen Anne in the early 18th century; as a movie, I may have found it a bit draggy in parts, but as a replication of the way Anne ran her palace and her country, it's impressively exacting.

At the center of the story are the Queen, a sickly and lonely woman who harbors sexual and romantic feelings for Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, who in turn has become the voice of the crown -- she goes so far as to make strategic military decisions, claiming to be delivering the decree of the queen herself.  The palace is made an even weirder place by Anne's 17 bunny rabbits, each of whom represents one of the 17 children Anne miscarried.  Into this odd and frequently severe environment drops Sarah's cousin, Abigail, who arrives penniless to implore Sarah to give her a job, but quickly learns of the palace's secrets and begins conniving her way into influence.

It all would make for a terrific PBS series, and in fact a cursory glance at online articles shows that the basic plot is astonishingly true. But The Favourite is anything but a staid and stodgy costume drama, and anything but straightforward.  The three central performances by Olivia Colman as Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah, and Emma Stone as Abigail, are massively entertaining and monstrous in their depth of feeling. As the movie moves along at fits and starts it becomes clear that Lanthimos is doing something sly by turning the only sympathetic character at the film's start -- Abigail -- into the movie's villain, while Sarah turns from cold-hearted political climber to the victim of enormous violence.

Something tells me that The Favourite is a movie that will grow on me both with time and repeated viewings the way The Killing of a Sacred Deer did, but it's a problematic movie on many levels, vacillating in tone and approach with uncomfortable frequency. Unlike Lanthimos' two previous English-language movies, it lacks a sure-handed style, which may have been deliberate but leads to unpredictable shifts in mood that leave audiences unsure where to turn for some grounding.

Maybe that's part of the point, though -- that when jealousy, betrayal, disloyalty and violence come into play, nothing's predictable, and what started out as amusing turns shocking with vicious speed.

Most satisfyingly, the movie relegates its male performers to the background, often serving as emotional or sexual props while giving the women of the story the credit for the enormous power they wielded, both over each other and over the world.

Yes, even as I write this I sense my feelings toward The Favourite are shifting, but I'm not quite sure how. Moment to moment, the movie often doesn't quite work, behaving a little too badly, offering up a little too much merriment amid the hostility, and yet as a whole, especially with a cryptic and disturbing final shot, it lingers.  It's going to be a while until I figure out quite what to think about The Favourite, and just as with Lanthimos's previous films, maybe that's a good thing.

Viewed December 1, 2018 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, November 25, 2018

"The Front Runner"


How did the makers of The Front Runner take a true-life story set in the 1980s and filled with sex, lies and politics -- a story that even has Miami drug dealers on its fringe -- and make it boring? It's hard to imagine a movie being botched this badly. The only comparison is the way Gary Hart drove his own presidential campaign into the ground with alarming speed, but at least Gary Hart's real-life story was never dull. That's much more than can be said for the movie that finally got made about this sordid moment in presidential history.

The Front Runner moves at a funereal pace and approaches its story with a hand that isn't just heavy, it's leaden. Director Jason Reitman is trying, apparently, to channel the spirit of Robert Altman and his multi-layered style of filmmaking, which stuffed both the frame and the soundtrack with dizzying amounts of information and story. Give Reitman credit for trying, but the effort doesn't work, and instead gets The Front Runner off to a confusing and rocky start from which it never recovers.

But that's also in part because from those very first moments Reitman and co-screenwriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson take a completely straightforward approach to telling the story -- not entirely factual (it invents, awkwardly, a young Washington Post reporter, among other liberties) but in its dry, by-the-numbers accounting of the way Hart went from 1988 presidential front-runner status to disgraced has-been in just a few weeks.

That fall from grace in the public eye and Hart's steadfast insistence that the public has no interest in tawdry tabloid tales when reporters seem to catch him in what appears to be an affair.  But not everything is as it seems, Hart keeps insisting, and wants to try to keep the story focused on a panoply of policy-based issues.

The movie is based on All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, screenwriter Bai's chronicling of the events that enthralled Americans in the spring of 1987. But if the movie gets (most of) the details right, it utterly misses the meaning behind it all. There's talk throughout the movie -- a lot of talk -- about how Hart's misdeeds and the media's frenzied response would affect politics forever, and obviously the movie has more than a few parallels to our current age, in which a president was elected because of his tabloid-style celebrity.

But those knowing winks to 2018 audiences don't really relate to Gary Hart's story; what does is the complete failure of a seasoned politician to be able to reflect on his own actions and save his campaign. Hart, who is played with little zeal by a mostly charmless Hugh Jackman, is relegated a secondary character in his own scandal -- The Front Runner bounces back and forth between his campaign staff (led by a seemingly bored JK Simmons); his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga, trying hard to find something to work with here), who is stuck in their Colorado home and surrounded by press; the fictional Post reporter (Mamoudou Athie, who gives by far the most intriguing performance); Donna Rice (Sara Paxton, weepy-eyed with no character at all), and reporters and editors like Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina, entirely miscast) and Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis).

It might be something to see all of these characters dancing around each other to create the media frenzy that erupted, doing an intricate dance between media and politics as the public watched, wide-eyed -- that might have made for a biting, relevant satire.  That's not what The Front Runner is all about, even though its one-sheet poster offers a delicious image of Hart's campaign bus flying off a cliff while reporters chase after it.  A movie like that could have been the Dr. Strangelove of our modern political system, but the movie that Reitman has made is sleepy, dull and uninteresting, a recitation of facts that finally has nowhere to go but a title card that reminds us that Gary and Lee Hart are still married.

What are we to make of the fact that a woman whose husband cheated on her in one of the most high-profile and public scandals in modern American politics stood by her husband and still does?  What are we to gather from the indignation of the campaign staff who cry foul over tabloid journalism?  Or of the voracious need of media to fill ever minute of a 24-hour news cycle?

The Front Runner doesn't offer any answers or perspectives; it just kind of sits there and lets us fidget in our seats, hoping something interesting will happen, until it's over.

If we learned anything from the Gary Hart scandal, you'd never know it by watching this movie.  I mean, we did learn something ... didn't we?

Viewed November 25, 2018 -- AMC Sunset 5


Sunday, November 18, 2018

"Bohemian Rhapsody"


I grew up in what could charitably be termed a pop-music-limited household; until I was 16 and old enough to drive on my own, my only exposure to what was playing on the radio was limited to the 20 minutes it took to carpool to or from school.

I was also a closeted gay kid, frightened of being found out, and, just as I started becoming aware of my predicament, pushed further into the closet by the mortal fear of AIDS.

In the midst of this confused childhood, I was more than a little aware of Freddie Mercury, who fronted a band called, of all things, Queen, and who wore cop glasses, a bushy mustache and a tight T-shirt when he wasn't wearing outrageously flamboyant costumes  -- all of which both flaunted and embraced a hyper-homosexualized persona that was hypnotizing and even frightening. Was looking and acting like this expected of everyone who was gay? And yet, the supermarket tabloids implied he wasn't gay, or that maybe he was, or that perhaps he was bisexual, and all of that confused me even more: If someone so clearly gay apparently wasn't gay, if someone whose band was named Queen was actually straight or possibly straight, where did that leave me?

Freddie Mercury seemed enormously complicated, especially in the defiant way he normalized a gay appearance just as the papers were filled with news of gay men causing a new plague. What a fascinating, complex, tortured, artistic, proud, manic soul must exist behind those mirrored glasses. So, Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-in-development biography of Freddie Mercury, had not just a man but an entire era to work with, placing it all against a backdrop of social and political change, of musical growth and experimentation.

Bohemian Rhapsody doesn't, in the end, do any of that, or at least next to none of it.  Never anything less than perfectly entertaining and slickly made, it is both everything a pop-music fan could want of a movie about Queen and nothing at all that will satisfy anyone searching for some kind of insight into the person behind the iconic images of Freddie Mercury.

As a docudrama, it's strictly made-for-cable stuff, hitting every key beat along the the rags-to-riches timeline and scrubbing away anything unseemly (or, sadly, interesting).  Most frustratingly, most alarmingly, most discouragingly is the way it treats Freddie Mercury as a gay man.  He is "movie gay" in Bohemian Rhapsody; in one scene, he is talking to his wife Mary on a pay phone outside of a truck stop in the middle of America when he sees a man entering the bathroom. Their eyes lock, filled with lust. This is how the film tells us Freddie Mercury is gay: by the prurient portrayal of the unspeakable things that men do to each other in a truck stop restroom.

Later, Freddie can't live with his one-scene struggle, and tells his angelic, sweet, patient, loving, supportive, perfect wife that he "might be bisexual." "You're gay," she assures him. And then they make a promise never to leave each other, because without her popping up from time to time, the movie will need to come to grips with Mercury's homosexuality, which it simply can't do.

Still later, Freddie goes into a gay bar, which is filled with men wearing leather, some even wearing hoods, where sex is happening everywhere, where sex is the only reason for being. Is this really how a big-budget studio film portrays homosexuality -- even in the 1970s and 1980s -- in major movies? As salacious and sleazy and undoubtedly dirty and shameful?

There is no serious attempt to explore what Freddie Mercury was struggling with, as far as his own identity goes. Nor is there ever a serious attempt to explore what that struggle did to Mercury both as a singer, a songwriter and a celebrity.

Likewise, we're never given insight into how Farrokh Bolsara turns into Freddie Mercury, other than a moment in which he tells his family that he has legally changed his name. His family, presented as fine and upstanding though staid and repressed people, seem like they'll be a major factor in the story, but once Bohemian Rhapsody is through with them, they mostly disappear. The whole movie's that way, bouncing merrily from one episode from the life of Freddie Mercury and Queen to the next, making sure to hit all the same marks that would be found in a special, two-hour episode of MTV's Behind the Music.

And that is enough for many people. The audience I saw Bohemian Rhapsody with loved it. They clapped along and raised their hands and gently sang the lyrics, and afterward they applauded and quite rightly praised Rami Malek for dominating the film with his re-creation of Mercury. They got exactly what they had wanted to see, a fun, jaunty musical that happens to have some not-so-happy moments like Mercury finding out he has AIDS and a title card that says he died of it, but why focus on those icky things when the music is so good?

Bohemian Rhapsody gets the mannerisms and general personality of Mercury right, or so I gather from what I've read of the film. He was a little guy who was always larger than life, he was not the leader of Queen but was more than "just" their lead singer (the other band members barely register as characters in this movie), and he dominated every room he walked into.

The movie adds in a few little observations like: he loved cats, he was sad, he was lonely, he thought Queen was his family, and he wanted to be friends with the wife who knew his secret. Beyond that, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn't allow Freddie Mercury even a moment to be a real person. How does he create songs? He writes them down, sometimes gets a tune in his head first. What do his lyrics to "Bohemian Rhapsody" mean, and why is it so over-the-top? There's a little observation about how poetry matters more to the listener, but that's the extent of the insight.

What about those sad, angry, lonely lyrics that open "We Are the Champions"? Nope, not a thing. What about the very public struggle to discover his own sexuality even while hiding it for the fans? Bohemian Rhapsody isn't going to go there.

It's purely a paint-by-numbers job, and it's a colorful and entertaining one. See Bohemian Rhapsody for Malek's performance and for the music. Enjoy it. It's worth enjoying.

But consider, too, all the ways it does a gross disservice to the story it's telling. When Mercury says he doesn't want to be a poster boy for AIDS, what does that mean?  Why does he eschew the one opportunity to give something back to the community that helped him attain such lofty heights? What is he afraid of?

More intriguingly, what is Bohemian Rhapsody afraid of? Sure, it's worth being satisfied with the idea that Mercury is at least played as gay in a limited way throughout the film, so that the audience is getting a story about a gay musician who is still revered and idolized; at least they haven't eliminated Mercury's real self entirely. But they have blunted it to such a degree that it's all presented as acceptable. Too acceptable. Outside of a chaste kiss or two (and that scene in the truck stop), there's no desire in this film to present hyper-sexualized Freddie Mercury as a hyper-sexualized human. Indeed, apart from some drinking, Queen has to be the least sordid band in history, with other band members who live fine, upstanding, family-oriented life.

The more I think about Bohemian Rhapsody the more I have to wonder about the people who made it (fired director Bryan Singer chief among them); are they this frightened of sexuality in general, homo- or hetero- or otherwise? Because they've taken the story of one of the great crossover icons, whose death from AIDS exposed so many of the secrets he had longed to hide, and presents him as just another slightly loony singer with talent who makes it big and then gets a little lonely.

What a waste of material. Even more frustrating is that so much of what's there is so good. Malek is terrific, often disarmingly so; some complex and bewildering relationships are given just enough time on screen to make us want to see more; and the film's depiction of the music is first rate.

But, really, didn't Freddie Mercury deserve more than this? A lot more than this? As a populist biography, it may be fine -- like I said, it's at least of the quality that plays on cable -- but as a deep and unexpected look at Freddie Mercury and the rise and success of Queen, it leaves the best stuff out. You go to Bohemian Rhapsody to be entertained, not to be enlightened. Fair enough. But it should have been much, much, much more than a perfectly enjoyable jukebox musical.

Viewed November 18, 2018 -- AMC Burbank 6


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"


It doesn't seem right to dismiss Lee Israel, whose wild and weird story is the basis for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, as a mean and horrible person. To do so completely undermines everything that has happened to her before this movie begins. Lee is 50-ish, disillusioned, disappointed, and tired of being the butt of everyone's jokes, which she knows she is. How could a woman who carries a Scotch glass in her messenger bag not be aware of how others see her?

Lee looks in the mirror and sees, well, herself. She has written two books, both biographies, and wants to write a third, about Fanny Brice. The year is 1991, and even then a book about Fanny Brice was a few decades too late. Lee is undaunted. No, wait, scratch that: Lee is daunted by just about everything. And why shouldn't she be?

She's been fired yet again, this time for being abusive to a co-worker who, quite frankly, deserved it. Her books have been failures, just like her relationship. Her apartment is filled with flies. She's broke. And the damned world keeps insisting she be polite and upbeat. She has  She has seen enough of people to know she prefers the company of her cat (who's sick), and she is well aware that this is not how successful people live their lives. What can she do? It is who she is.

She doesn't complain about it, so why is everyone always complaining about her? The way she sees it, she has every right to be pissed off at the agent who won't return her calls but races to the phone when she thinks it's Nora Ephron on the other end.

Melissa McCarthy captures a real, beating heart inside the layers of this woman who is dismissed by the entire world so frequently that she has come to dismiss herself. McCarthy makes Israel entirely watchable, wonderfully alive and oddly hopeful, so when she stumbles upon a way to make a quick buck that is entirely unethical and kinda-sorta criminal, we're rooting for her. She is an insufferable person, maybe, but only in the way that every single one of us is insufferable by the time we reach a certain age; life owes us more than it's given us, doesn't it? Why not take it?

Her weary view of the world is matched by the approach Jack Hoff (Richard E. Grant) takes to life -- he's gay in 1991, he's seen everyone he cares about die, he might very well die himself, and, screw it, he wants in on this scheme of Lee's. In the odd and squishy ethics of director Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, what Lee is doing seems harmless enough, and she has genuinely stumbled upon it herself: She has taken to forging letters allegedly written by literary giants, people like Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner.

She sells the first one, legitimately, to a confident and pretty book store owner (Dolly Wells), and then realizes there is real money to be made here, a vast network of collectors that she can tap into; they don't ask too many questions, and, besides, everyone seems to be doing equally shady things.

The story itself is unlikely but true (which is the best kind of true, as the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty knows), and Lee's do-what-it-takes approach to life reminded me, along with its New York vibe, both of mid-'80s Woody Allen and, oddly, of Tootsie, in which Dustin Hoffman is told by his agent that under no circumstances will anyone ever hire him for anything.

Lee also has an agent, who is played by Jane Curtin with sparkle, fire and a distinct air of sympathy. Her message to Lee: Find another line of work, because you're never gonna make it doing what you're doing. Lee's tired of that answer. And she's even more tired of never being willing to act, either way, on the advice.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is about a woman who is complicated, unpleasant and slightly unhinged, and none of it without good reason. She knows she's not the best person out there, but, damn it, she's not the worst, either. An all-too-brief scene with Lee and her ex-girlfriend (Anna Deveare Smith) is heartbreaking in its honesty; Lee is a difficult person, even for herself.

Yes, the movie is a showcase for the dramatic side of Melissa McCarthy, and a wonderful one. But there's much more to it than letting McCarthy look and act unglamorous and unseemly. It's above all a carefully observed portrait of how people see exactly what they want to see, about how they make up their minds based on little more than a cursory glance and a gut feeling, and about how both of those things can be wrong.

Late in the movie, there's a scene in which Lee gets a chance to explain herself. And she does. The way she does it (not to mention the way McCarthy plays the moment) is just perfect for how it sums up a woman who is unrepentant about scamming a world that scammed her, is even a little tired of it, but willing to be just the tiniest bit hopeful that maybe there's something halfway good still waiting in it for her.

Viewed November 13, 2018 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Boy Erased"


The intentions of everyone involved in Boy Erased were noble and sincere, of that I have no doubt. You can see it in almost every frame of this earnest, muted drama that seems custom-crafted for awards-season audiences. It's a well-shot, well-cast, well-acted film with a topic almost guaranteed to elicit sympathy among Oscar voters. There's only one problem with Boy Erased: It isn't nearly as good as it should be.

Do not fault the actors. Academy Award Nominee Lucas Hedges is in seemingly every other movie these days for a reason: He's engaging and believable and committed. Academy Award Winner Nicole Kidman dons a wig and accent that would make Dolly Parton proud and continues to be maybe the most interesting actress working in film (not to mention TV). Academy Award Winner Russell Crowe brings an added air authority and offers more proof that Australians can do flawless American accents -- as does writer-director Joel Edgerton, who co-stars in his film, which is, as Oscar tends to love, Based on a True Story.

It might be cynical to assume that Oscar gold was the primary intention behind the film, of course. I believe (honestly, I do) that Edgerton and his cast and his crew wanted to make a serious, artistic film about the insanity of anti-gay "conversion therapy" and the horrors suffered by those who are forced to go through it.  They have succeeded but only to point. Boy Erased is indeed both serious and artistic. It's also predictable, unsurprising and frustratingly unmoving.

How could Boy Erased be so staid? Every frame of this film should be awash in anger and outrage, not in muted shadows and sallow colors that underscore just how serious the movie is. Every moment of what happens inside the walls of the "therapy" center should unnerve the viewer with the terror of psychological torture, but instead comes across as pedantic, even sedate. Except for a few moments, it all seems frankly polite.

Jared Eamons (Hedges) goes to the "Love in Action" center because once his parents learn that their 18-year-old son is gay, they give him an ultimatum: Live by our set of Scripture-based morals or be disowned. That alone should be a devastating moment, but is given barely an extra beat in Edgerton's straightforward-but-well-meaning screenplay.  Edgerton also plays the head of the center, a hard-talking, hardcore Christian who himself has "overcome" homosexuality and is convinced that a program of praying, intervention and manly activities can help gay teens become straight.

If you've ever seen Frank Oz's In and Out starring Kevin Kline, you'll remember that film's funny, satirical "Exploring Your Masculinity" sequence, which ends with Kline doing a joyous, exuberant dance to "I Will Survive." That's Boy Erased, but with no sense of humor at all, even though the concept is the same: one "straight" man yelling at a gay man to stop being gay. Played for laughs, it makes a point, but when stripped of its humor, and of the freedom and sense of self-worth that are part of the coming-out process, it's all overwhelmingly, aggressively dour, and lacking in drama, pathos and empathy.

In part, the film lacks an anchoring point of view; the movie recreates and presents scenes that no doubt actually happened, but without a clear sense of this being Jared's story, it has a curious detachment. And although it boasts an intriguing supporting cast, including YouTube influencer Troye Sivan, multi-hyphenate performer Xavier Dolan, Flea, and, most memorably, Cherry Jones as a deeply understanding doctor, none of them (except Jones) are given much at all to do.

Worse, Jared is afforded no real identity, something that it's beyond even the impressive talents of Hedges to overcome. His sexuality is a plot point, not a key aspect of his character, and other than a brutal, devastating rape and a few chaste kisses with another boy, there is no sense at all that he views his homosexuality in any meaningful way.

While there is no requirement that a film about a young gay man needs to be made by gay filmmakers, Boy Erased desperately an authentic gay voice, the way last year's mesmerizing Call Me By Your Name benefitted from director Luca Guadagnino's gay experience even though it starred two straight actors. Straight writer-director Edgerton really, sincerely believes in what he's saying here, but beyond the message that gay "conversion" therapy doesn't work (as if anyone watching the film might believe otherwise), it's unclear what exactly he wants to accomplish with this film.

Boy Erased ends, as does this Oscar season's equally discouraging Beautiful Boy, with a set of statistics. Both movies might get the facts right, but they seem to know nothing about the experience of those who go through the horrors they depict. Boy Erased means well. But that's not nearly enough.

Viewed November 10, 2018 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"A Star Is Born"


Ally is a nobody waitress with a voice of gold, Jack is a superstar singer whose addictions are getting the best of him. Sound familiar? It should, because this is the fourth time A Star Is Born has been made in Hollywood, and even though more than 80 years have passed since the first attempt, the story hasn't changed much.

The trouble with that this time around is that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper create rich, carefully observed characters who are endlessly fascinating for about the first 45 minutes of the movie, and just as we're really falling in love with both of them and their complexities, they start living A Star Is Born.

We've seen the story before, over and over; we haven't seen these characters, and as A Star Is Born raced toward its inexorable conclusion I found myself wishing time and again that something different would happen to these particular people.  These characters deserve a more interesting, more challenging fate than the same one to befall Judy Garland and James Mason, Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, et. al.

The first time we see Cooper's Jackson (not Norman) Maine, he's on stage performing in front of an adoring audience, but he looks and acts tired of it all. He's too used to being a star, but he navigates the trappings of stardom with ease, especially as a passenger in the back of an SUV limo whose driver is the closest thing he's got to a friend. After the concert that opens the movie, Jackson needs a drink, so the limo pulls up in front of a grungy dive that turns out to be a drag bar.

Jackson doesn't mind, and in one of the movie's many nice little grace notes, he seems to enjoy the camaraderie of the bar and its patrons. Up on stage comes Ally, the only biological woman in the place and the only live singer, and immediately Jackson is entranced. It's easy to see why: Lady Gaga seems uncharacteristically average in these opening scenes, and as she's already proven in Five Foot Two, her simultaneously candid and self-absorbed documentary, Lady Gaga can seem disarmingly ordinary.

They share a long scene in a supermarket parking lot that feels a lot like two superstars imagining what it would be like to be anonymous again, marveling at the way everyone knows who they are but no one knows what they're like. Jackson asks her to call him Jack. This relaxed, revealing, completely captivating scene holds the tantalizing promise of turning A Star Is Born into an intimate conversation like the Before movies.

But it's A Star Is Born.

He's going to make her famous. She's going to try to get him to stop drinking and doing drugs. As she rises, so he will fall, ultimately humiliating her, but she will stand by her man, and he will become convinced his own fame is holding her back, and the movie will play the way A Star Is Born always plays, and it will prove as simultaneously beguiling and disappointing as listening to Lady Gaga perform a cover of an old standard: With so many more interesting opportunities, why choose the safest ones?

Because A Star Is Born demands it. There's no doubt most of it is played very, very well, with the exception of an onerous little creep named Rez, who becomes Ally's manager and turns her into a bubble-gum pop-music sensation. The scenes with Rez are the movie's weakest moments, which isn't the fault of actor Rafi Gavron, who plays him as all slime and artifice; the problem is that Lady Gaga and Cooper play their roles with real conviction, and their characters insist on authenticity. Her sellout into music superstardom feels contrived and overplayed -- certainly the world today knows celebrities who don't rise to the top by giving in so easily.

So little about the film's middle is believable that it's disconcerting to compare it with the sheer force of personality in the first act.  By the time A Star Is Born gets to the only place it is allowed to go, it feels even less convincing -- it's a story of fame and addiction that shows its age; would anyone in the movie act the way they do if the plot didn't demand it?

Perhaps in the hands of a lesser director and lesser stars it would have been less problematic for the film to wind up in precisely the place A Star Is Born must wind up, but is that a reason, in 2018, to force Ally into a place of having to choose between her career and her man, of ending up in the same place as the character did 80 years ago, feeling weakened yet strengthened by avoidable tragedy?  The film seems so stuck in its old self that there are times when you wish Ally and Jack would just sit down and watch A Star Is Born to see where it's all headed.

None of that, strangely enough, is reason not to see A Star Is Born, or to marvel at its wonderful soundtrack, or to imagine the acting career ahead of Lady Gaga, or to enjoy the remarkable chemistry of the two leads. Indeed, there's not too much wrong at all with A Star Is Born ... except that it's A Star Is Born, that old chestnut, roasted and served up again with the same bittersweet flavor it's always had.

Viewed November 5, 2018 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks