Saturday, February 29, 2020

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire"


In the end, the quality of the best romantic films can be determined by the final shots. Think about The Way We Were or Bridges of Madison County or Call Me By Your Name and the exquisite heartbreak of those final moment. Portrait of a Lady on Fire comes achingly close to achieving that transcendence, and I had to wonder why it just almost worked despite perfect performances and a visual magnificence that is truly rare.

There's a much buzzed-about (quite literally; see the movie, you'll know what I mean) scene in the middle where the two protagonists – the aristocratic Héloïse and the working-class painter Marianne – accompany the household maid to a nighttime gathering of women, who sing the most haunting song you might ever have heard in the movies. While it's impossible not to be struck by the beauty of the moment, it overwhelms the story.

Though the movie certainly brought me closer to these two women (played by Noémie Merlant and Adéle Haenel), yet they both are decidedly impenetrable. The movie held me at a distance until close to the end, when one accuses the other of the passions of jealousy and possession, and finally their repressed emotions come to the fore. In a movie about same-sex romance in the 18th century, repression is to be expected. Yet by that final shot, when one character breaks down while she listens to a symphony, I wanted to break down, too, rather than be intrigued, but not consumed, by the fate of these women and their love.

Viewed Feb. 29, 2020 -- AMC Burbank 6


Friday, February 28, 2020

"The Invisible Man"


The opening scene of The Invisible Man is a wordless master class in suspense filmmaking. It shows us a person we don't know, and within a few minutes, we are entirely invested in her story as she flees a modern mansion on a secluded hillside.

Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss) finds a physical way out of an abusive relationship with a Silicon Valley optics pioneer, but this man is not out of her head. The unbearably tense introduction establishes Leigh Whannell's Invisible Man as a multi-layered horror film. In its first hour, it pivots between scary, tense, disturbing and excruciating, cementing Whannell's reputation as one of the best directors working in horror, and Moss's career of playing victims who are sick of being victimized. She, and the film – one of the best-ever depictions of the deep terror of domestic violence – are extraordinarily good for a very long time.

As it takes a necessary a turn into more action-driven territory, it remain a compelling puzzle (its twists are such that I'm not sure they could be entirely explained, even with a diagram), it loses some of its deep-seated fright. The latter half feels a little like a pastiche – mix some Halloween, The Matrix and a touch of the underrated '80 gem Jagged Edge, but be sure not to overtake – and contains moments that require a bit of disbelief. It's also consistently satisfying, though sometimes only just, because its biggest flaw is a villain who can't match Moss's complex, tortured, courageous Cecelia. Moss is more than visible; she's superb.

Viewed Feb. 28, 2020 -- AMC Universal City


Friday, February 21, 2020

"Ordinary Love"


In its quiet specificity, this small movie about a long-married couple coping with illness elicits a warm, compassionate empathy, so by the end it is about any two people who come to sad and difficult realizations about life and happiness.

Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) have, it's revealed, already survived loss, and learned how to navigate around mortality. But one morning, it rears its head again as Joan discovers a lump in her breast. On one level Ordinary Love is about how they both struggle with the devastating effects of cancer. But what's really magnificent about Ordinary Love is how it shows people whose commitment is tested, and how their relationship evolves to take on the shape of their challenges.

Ordinary Love watches Joan and Tom eat together, walk together, shop together, bicker together, and sometimes love together so fiercely that it looks like hate, or maybe it's the other way around, and then they wake up and have to do it all over again. It's a rare depiction of marriage, and in its gentle way may be even more honest than the intense drama of Marriage Story.

Manville is magnetic, bringing warmth, grace and fragility to this carefully observed woman. Neeson is equally strong and both are beautifully understated as the turns in directions both wholly anticipated and, often, wonderfully not. Ordinary Love, as the title implies, is not looking to break new ground, but rather to see a common world in an uncommonly compassionate light.

Viewed Feb. 21, 2020 -- AMC Burbank 8


Sunday, February 16, 2020



It's a brave thing to take on a movie as complicated, introspective and uncomfortable as Force Majeure and try to turn it into something resembling a mainstream Hollywood film, and for that directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (with co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong) deserve more credit than they'll probably ever get. They've actually done an admirable job, but they've also cast Will Ferrell in one of the lead roles, which is, to be generous, a mistake.

On the other hand, there's Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who comes close to rescuing the movie from Ferrell's avalanche of bad choices. He is exasperatingly impressed with his own inflated sense of comedic genius, completely disconnected from everything around him. Mockery comes so naturally to him that his efforts at sincerity are forced and unconvincing. He's the worst part of the movie; unfortunately, he's also the main part of the movie.

He plays a husband and father who makes a miscalculation during a Swiss Alps vacation that undermines his wife's sense of stability and commitment. As counterpoint to Ferrell's inept atttempts at drama, Louis-Dreyfus she shines in every scene she's in; with just a look she's able to years of hostility, resentment and, somewhere in there, love. She fills the movie with a sense of uncomfortable loneliness, but both her co-star and the script cast her adrift (quite literally for a while), and Downhill never achieves the sustained mood or moral ambiguity of its superior, Swedish inspiration -- though it's impressive that it even tries. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

"The Assistant"


For a movie that has moments of caustic anger and even brutality, The Assistant is awfully restrained. At first, it seems a fitting response, like a quiet, reserved victim who isn't sure about speaking out. But as this brief film unfolds slowly, its restraint becomes less intriguing and more confounding.

Its quiet nature is sometimes a plus, but in the end writer-director Kitty Green's film is so glum and numb that it loses potency – even while, oddly, it manages to disturb and distress.

The movie takes place on one long, dark, winter day as Jane, the assistant to a powerful New York film producer clearly modeled on Harvey Weinstein, goes about her thankless, abusive job. She's played by Julia Garner, whose character seems (unintentionally?) destined to be a victim. She's so oddly timid that it's hard to see how she was chosen for the job by such an abrasive, abusive human, (never shown but impressively voiced by Jay O. Sanders). As the day wears on, Jane withstands the behavior, then becomes overwhelmed by it, and finally tolerates it, but The Assistant offers no real perspective on why.

It is, to be sure, a finely detailed observation, and an unnervingly accurate portrayal of the entertainment industry, which seems so incapable of handling the #MeToo movement or its ugly nature. But to what end? That's uncertain, which is both the problem and, maybe, the point -- The Assistant merely watches and instead of passing judgment on what it sees, just shakes its head sadly.

Viewed Feb. 7, 2020 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks