Marriage Story

This is a great movie. It is heartbreaking, challenging, and sometimes hilarious. It tackles a very difficult subject beautifully with excellent filmmaking and some of the best performances of the year. Netflix and Noah Baumbach have made fantastic movie.

The film opens with a pair of montages. In voice over Charlie Barber, played by Adam Driver, details all the things about his wife that he loves. Then his wife Nicole Barber, played by Scarlett Johansson, detail all the things about Charlie that she loves. This is brilliant for a number of reasons. It quickly establishes the characters, their jobs as director and actress in a New York theater company, and their relationships with their son. It also and more importantly humanizes them and makes them humans for the audience. It is quickly revealed that these two are getting a divorce. It is meant to be an amicable split. They are trying to work through it without lawyers or contention. That conviviality goes out the door pretty quickly though, and they descend into nastiness. The thing that makes all this ugliness bearable is this opening montage. These are two good people who at one time loved each other very much. They love their son and no matter how bad it gets that love is real and will always be there.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are absolutely stunning in this movie. Adam Driver conveys so much depth in every inflection of his voice. He is completely magnetic on screen. His role could have been showy and overplayed so easily. He could have come across as a self pitying victim with one misstep, but Driver’s foot never falters. He is pitch perfect throughout. Johansson likewise does what is probably her best work yet here. There is one scene in particular in which she has to answer interview questions regarding her parenting. It is all filmed in a single closeup. With every question million different tiny emotions register across her face. She is real and natural and convincing throughout the whole movie. She imbues every moment with an easy authenticity. The two of them together make the film feel like a documentary at times. All artifice disappears and the film becomes a real experience with these people.

There are some wonderful supporting performances from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. Of these three, Alan Alda is the favorite. He is this befuddled old attorney who is definitely in over his head, but is just carrying on as best he can totally unbothered by his situation. It is a delight to see him every time he’s on screen. Ray Liotta is a searing force in this movie. He is a shark of a lawyer in every sense of the word. He sits behind a desk in one scene, but it still feels like he’s prowling around Charlie. Although Laura Dern is the real standout of the three lawyers. She totally becomes a different person here. Her every movement completely captures a certain type of vapid, powerful Los Angeles resident. She’s the type of person who listens, but doesn’t hear a thing. And Laura Dern does an amazing job of conveying the fact that she is only waiting for her turn to talk. She could have easily been the villain of the film. She could have been a bitch or a hag or the force for evil in this story, but she isn’t. Laura Dern’s handling of this character could not have been better. I hate her. I caught myself hating this fictional character even though I knew she wasn’t real.

The filmmaking here is also fantastic. It is full of wonderful camera work. There is an early scene at a restaurant in which Charlie and Nicole look at each other from across the room, and the angles used and the way it cuts between them is absolutely riveting filmmaking. The script is full of surprising humor. It perfectly skewers Los Angeles in a single shot in which a dozen people surround Nicole as she walks from the set to her trailer. They all talk incessantly about nothing, and it perfectly sums up that whole city and the film industry. There is a scene early in which Charlie is getting served divorce papers that is so suspenseful yet hilarious that it creates equal parts terrible tension and outrageous laughter. It is vividly constructed and absolutely hilarious. Maybe my favorite shot of the movie comes in the middle when Charlie, Nicole, and their son are closing Nicole’s grate. She is on one side. He is on the other. They push together to close a huge door between them. There couldn’t be a better visual metaphor for the movie. It is beautiful and perfect.

However, the film does not shy away from the nastiness of divorce. These two tear each other apart. They brutalize each other in court and over the phone and, in one riveting scene in particular, in person. I spent a great deal of the film’s runtime in deep frustration. I had a pit of anxiety in my throat throughout most of the movie. It can be unbearable at times. That is a sign of the films’ effectiveness, but it is also tough to watch at times. The movie is deeply challenging to its audience. It pushes right up to the edge then brings it all back. I was under stress while watching it, but I could not look away. I would have regretted looking away. This is a masterful movie that deserves to be watched.

It is currently streaming on Netflix. Please watch this brilliant movie. It was definitely my cup of tea. I hope it’s yours too. A+

1917

This movies thrusts the audience into the experience of soldiers during WWI. It tells a stripped down narrative with a “single take” technical style that rises above a mere gimmick to create a powerful war film.

The story follows two young British soldiers Schofield and Blake (played well by George McKay and Dean Charles Chapman respectively) who are tasked with getting a message to a battalion containing Blake’s brother near the German line. The message is to call off an attack that is doomed to fail. The attack is set for the following morning. The clock begins ticking and these two soldiers must move through every hell that the first world war had to offer in order to save the lives of their comrades.

The movie is rich in specific personal details that lend the film a deeply authentic feel. The two men must make their way first through the endless labyrinth of the British trench. This segment will feel long and laborious to some viewers, but that is the point. It shows exactly how cramped, dirty, and truly awful the trenches were. It shows exactly how endless these lines were for the men in them. It was a miserable way to live. The details here feel so true. The ever-present mud, the decaying bodies underfoot, the burned out remains of what must have been a beautiful forest all add to the sense of cold reality this film has. From the trenches, the men cross no man’s land heading toward a German line that they hope is deserted. The tension builds slowly and never truly relents from there.

The entire film is presented as a single shot. It is of course digitally altered to stitch together many shots, but the fact that the audience is never allowed the release of an edit or a hard cut truly throws the audience into the tension of the moment. The audience is gripped by the screen and never allowed to look away. They are submerged into the experiences of Blake and Schofield.

As for Blake and Schofield, they are well rounded characters whose development is expressed almost incidentally. Their stories are told in short bursts of dialogue that take place under the action. There aren’t long drawn out heart to hearts or big character moments. They are revealed in little details shared along their journey. Blake’s family had cherry trees. Schofield doesn’t care about the medals or the glory of war. Blake is a good person who wants to help. Schofield has seen too much of this war. This isn’t a character study. This is an examination of the war through action. It’s a mostly silent film just depicting for the audience the horrors.

There are so many moments in this movie that will haunt the viewer and bring tears to the eyes. There is a horrific scene in which a character holds a soldier while he dies. Because the whole thing plays out in one shot the scene never allows the audience the release of an edit. There is no artifice in this moment it is just the tragic end of life that was experienced by so many. There are moments of respite from the grim horror as when cherry blossoms are found and enjoyed, or when a baby is discovered and cared for. The film is filled with small moments that add up to big impact. One moment that brings unexpected tears is when the soldiers band together to push a truck out of the mud. These men coming together for a single purpose and achieving a victory even one as small as this is a deeply moving and powerful moment of triumph. The ending has the biggest punch of all by playing it small and simple. It’s not a big moment of glory. It’s not a grand sweep of emotional heartstring plucking. It is played with the stiff upper lip reserve that the British of that time were known for. This reserve and narrative hammer fall is what really drives home the point. It doesn’t preach or sell a message. It tells its simple story and lets the hammer fall on its own.

A couple final thoughts; Roger Deakins is the cinematographer, and his work here is undeniably brilliant. His ability to create the single take effect is masterful, and his eye for haunting images is absolutely exquisite. His use of flairs to light a bombed out city is deeply moving and creates images that will live on in the audience’s minds. He is able to maintain the single take without creating a wobbly shaky cam feel. It never gets too disorienting or head ache inducing. He also never dips into video game territory. It never feels like a video game.

It’s a deeply effective film that really worked for me. I left the theater in silence as everything I just experienced settled into me. It’s definitely my cup of tea. A

Joker

This is pretty good remake of Taxi Driver. It’s less a movie in its own right and more a mashup of better films from the 70’s and 80’s. It is carried through by a fully immersive performance from Joaquin Phoenix. It has some moments of its own, and it is incredibly well shot. But it never really rises above homage.

Joker is ostensibly based on the DC Comics characters and tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a man with deep issues and a delusion dream of becoming a standup comic. In the opening scenes he is beaten and humiliated by a bunch of cruel kids. He is setup by a coworker and fired from his job. He is then beaten again by three guys on a subway train. The beatings never really stop in this movie. The beatings are either mental or physical or both. He is made fun of on TV for his lousy stand up. He is undermined by those who are supposed to help him. He is verbally assaulted by those around him. He is a guy who is tortured by the world and ground into the dirt until he lashes out. After all the violence and brutality what does all this torture lead to? What message does the film seek to deliver? What can be found at the end of all this bad? Not much.

Avoiding spoilers, the films themes are frustratingly absent. Fleck commits horrible crimes, but the crimes are always justified by the filmmakers. He kills three people early on, but they were jerks. So it’s okay. He murders someone close to him, but they lied to him. So that’s fine. He kills the guys who betrayed him. That makes it good and satisfying for the audience. In this same way every terrible crime he commits is made to feel like it is in someway justified. Now Fleck is never outright rewarded for his crimes, but he is never punished either. The movie isn’t really saying that murder is justified, but it isn’t saying it’s not justified either. In the same way Fleck is a man who begins the movie on the edge. He is barely getting by with his various mental illnesses. The support system in place for him is taken away by a lack of funding. However, this isn’t what drives him to killing and madness. He begins killing before he loses his support, and he chooses to throw away his pills and embrace the violence before he loses help. It’s not a condemnation of an indifferent system if he chooses to do bad things regardless of the system.

There is a lot of political talk surrounding this movie. Does it support violence? Does it promote mass shooters? Is it just an intel fantasy? The problem is the film could be about any of these things because it’s themes are muddled to the point of being nonexistent. When there is no theme, people insert their own. If you see the film, you can insert your own reading and take what you want from it.

The film is dark, violent, and mean spirited. It is however beautifully shot. The cinematography here is fantastic. The film creates a gritty yet heightened world. It’s deeply realistic, yet it is full of vivid colors and expressionistic takes on the lighting and look. It makes the stairs Fleck climbs to get home from work look like the tallest mountain anyone could climb, yet makes those same stairs look like a neon playground when Fleck finally descends into full Joker madness.

The biggest draw the film has is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He throws himself headfirst into this role. He contorts and tortures his body in order to portray this man’s madness. Unfortunately he isn’t given a the guidance a performance like this needs. There is an extended scene in which he dances in a bathroom after killing some people. The scene goes on and on. He dances and dances and dances, and the whole film screeches to a halt so he can have this endless dance. It doesn’t serve a narrative function. It isn’t about him celebrating his murders. He seems to enter a trance and just dance. A lot of his performance feels like this. Just him acting for the sake of acting. It’s a performance with a capital”P.” Whether that’s good or bad will entirely depend on how much you enjoy it.

It’s not fair to compare a film to an earlier film, especially a classic like Taxi Driver. However this film is so deeply entwined with that film. It’s wears its comparisons on its sleeve. It borrows the color palette, the story structure, and the isolated antihero nature of that film. It even borrows that film’s star. Robert De Niro shows up for a small role here. The movie is ostensibly about the comic book character Joker, from Batman. Aside from a few oblique references to the Wayne family and one request to be called Joker, the movie has nothing to do with comics. It feels so much more like a remake of Taxi Driver than anything else it could be.

I didn’t like the movie. I found it predictable and muddled. What’s worse is I kind of found it forgettable. There aren’t a lot of moments that stick with me. There aren’t any surprises. The plot twists and “surprises” are pretty clearly telegraphed from the outset. It doesn’t bring anything really new to the table. I don’t think it’s trying to glorify violence, but it’s not doing anything to condemn it either. It’s not my cup of tea. I guess I’d give it a letter grade of a B- for its muddled story telling and predictability. Maybe it’ll work for other people. There’s nothing technically wrong with it. It just doesn’t work in my opinion.

Knives Out

This is one of the most enjoyable and entertaining movies of 2019. It is a twisty, turning tale of murder and intrigue that drips with delight. It is full to overflowing with great characters played by great actors and captured with beautiful photography.

The story concerns a wealthy family gathered in the patriarch’s house after his untimely death. The patriarch is Harlan Thrombey played perfectly by Christopher Plummer. His spoiled and nasty kids and grandkids are gathered like flies to a picnic with shows of mourning and knives hidden behind their backs. The police are here to ask further questions and interrogate everyone’s stories about the night he died. Among the police is a private investigator named Benoit Blanc, played with a thick dripping southern accent by Daniel Craig, who doesn’t think all the pieces add up. The one piece of the puzzle that Blanc latches onto is the old man’s nurse Anna, played by Anna De Armas. She has the delightful problem of vomiting every time she lies or considers lying.

Her response to lying isn’t just a character quirk. It is played for comedic effect, but it has real ramifications for the plot. That could be said of almost every detail revealed in this movie. Every line spoken is filled with meaning. It is a tightly written and masterful screenplay that can be followed easily for a casual viewer, but it also offers a million little touches for the audience member paying close attention. Jokes come back and have real meaning. Lines that sound like nothing turn out to be important clues. And character traits are all brought together in a well crafted symphony.

There are some really delightful moments early on when each character describes Harlan’s birthday party which took place just before Harlan’s death. Each person tells a slightly different account of the event that puts themselves in the best light. This tableau of flashbacks is deeply revealing of the characters while also just being plain entertaining.

It’s a fun mystery in that every time I thought I had it figured out, the movie took a left turn and kept me guessing. It has the delightful ability to zig and zag freely while never making the audience feel jerked around or mislead.

Ana De Armas is fantastic. She is engaging and the perfect point of view character for the film. It really is her film and her story, and she nails it. Chris Evans plays a pitch perfect spoiled jerk. He nails the entitlement and arrogance of one to the manor born. Jaime Lee Curtis is wonderful as a woman so tightly wound she looks like she could snap any second. Michael Shannon is both pathetic and menacing in every scene. Daniel Craig devours his role with relish. He seems to be loving every minute of his outrageous Southern accent and deductions. There is pure joy in this performance.

I have very few drawbacks. The movie is on the long side. It could have been shortened up a little bit. It takes a minute to get the traction going. The movie spins it’s wheels slightly at the very start. However, once the ball gets rolling, there’s no holding back. It is a fun movie. It is a great time at the movies. See it in theaters and enjoy the listening to the audience try to figure it out. Listen to the shocked gasps, and the sighs of recognition as the plot unfolds. It’s a great time.

I loved it. It’s my cup of tea. A+

The Irishman

An incredibly long yet infinitely rewarding film that has a lot of problems but a lot of rewards for anyone willing to give it a try.

The film follows Frank Sheeran played by Robert De Niro as he rises from Union truck driver to mob enforcer to old man filled with regret. He’s a classic De Niro character; taciturn, mostly silent, yet with a great deal of depth behind his eyes. And here’s the first and possibly biggest problem with the movie. De Niro is wonderful, but they replaced his naturally dark eyes with bright blue eyes. They are an unnatural fluorescent blue that deadens the impact of his stare which is possibly De Niro’s greatest asset, his hard cold stare. It is a distracting and confounding decision that seems to serve no real narrative purpose.

Along the way Frank meets and befriends Russel Buffalino played by Joe Pesci. This is Pesci unlike almost any of his previous roles. He is subdued. He is wise and patient. He isn’t the hothead he’s played to perfection dozens of times. He’s hitting notes here that he rarely has before and it’s a joy every time he’s on screen.

As Frank gets deeper in with the mob the movie reveals how deeply entwined the mob and the Unions were back in the 50’s and 60’s. The movie really dives into this history and the behind the scenes nature of the story creates a fascinating tapestry of a time in American history that is easily forgotten or overlooked.

As frank rises through the ranks of the mob he is given the important task of protecting Jimmy Hoffa played by Al Pacino. Hoffa here is a wild card. He’s a temperamental showman who plays to the crowd and alienates everyone around him. Hoffa’s story feels like Greek tragedy. His hubris and pride leads to his own downfall. He’s an incredibly sad figure who believes that he is untouchable due to his status. Even as he ostensibly signs his own death certificate he clings to his pride.

What makes his tragedy heartbreaking though is his friendship with Frank. De Niro and Pacino have been friends since the 70’ and every scene with them is infused with their 40+ years of friendship and trust. The weight of the decisions these characters make weighs on them and crushes them. This movie is about how much guilt weighs and how much that weight hangs on the soul.

The film is directed by Martin Scorsese, and while this isn’t his best film, it is his best in years. The storytelling is sharp and clean. The themes are clear and well developed. And the movie is filled with scenes that are masterclasses in scene work. That said it is way too long. There are so many great moments, but too many of them get lost in the sheer volume of moments.

One of the gimmicks of the movie is that it uses a computer effect to digitally “de-age” its stars. The effects is only really used in a few early scenes. Pesci and De Niro look like they’re in their 50’s and 60’s throughout most of the movie. Both De Niro and Pesci are 76. Shaving 20 years off these legends isn’t nothing, but they still look older than their characters are supposed to be. Even in the early scenes when De Niro is more drastically aged he still moves like a 76 year old. There’s a scene in which De Niro beats up a guy and breaks the guys hand. Because De Niro still moves slowly the beating is less brutal and more like a strange slow motion clip. All the actors have this problem. No matter what age they are portraying, their true age shines through in their body language. It is wonderful that this technology brought these amazing actors together again, it it’s effectiveness is seriously limited.

Overall, I liked the movie a lot. It’s story is rich and fascinating. It’s characters and performances are well worth the time investment. However it is a flawed film that doesn’t always stick the landing. It is my cup of tea. A-

Jojo Rabbit

An incredibly skillful movie that takes hard premise and filters it through the point of view of a boy trying to figure out who he is, Jojo Rabbit is a rollercoaster of emotions.

The story is set in Nazi Germany during the later days of World War II. It follows a young boy who wants nothing more than to be a great Nazi and Adolf Hitler’s right hand man. He wants this so badly that he has invented an imaginary friend out of Adolf Hitler. He talks often to this cartoonish version of the fuhrer who is played by the director Taika Waititi. He has a quirky, offbeat, and immensely enjoyable send of humor that permeates his depiction of Hitler as well as the entire film.

The whole film is told through Jojo’s perspective which means that the world is a little skewed and a little exaggerated. This is where the offbeat humor comes into play. Jojo goes running through the woods, and it feels like the most epic and amazing adventure ever. Then the film suddenly snaps out of his perspective to show what is really happening and the moment couldn’t be funnier. The depictions of the Nazi’s is seen through the eyes of a young boy who sees them as the ideal, but as hard as he tries to maintain that illusion the truth keeps breaking through. When the veneer of the Nazi’s finally fully wears off the horror of what the nazi party was is exposed in a horrific sequence that wrenches the guts and tears out the audience’s hearts. This approach also has the ability to subtly satirize everything it shows. Because it is exaggerated, it makes all the nazi imagery look extremely silly. All the uniforms and Heil Hitler’s become hilarious symbols of an absurd world view. Even though the story is about a kid who glorifies the Nazi’s the film is able to never glorify Nazis itself. It takes everything the that made the Nazi’s appear powerful and makes it silly. It’s a new and fascinating way of looking at a group and time period that has been shown the same way for a long time.

The film has a lot of wonderful performances. Sam Rockwell plays the part of a Nazi Captain who sees the writing on the wall as far as the war is concerned as a man whose layers are slowly peeled back to reveal hidden complexities and complications. Scarlett Johansson is pitch perfect as Jojo’s mother. Watching her it’s clear to see where Jojo got his vivid imagination. She fills every moment with warmth and humor, but is also able to convey the depths of her struggle and sadness. Jojo himself is played by an immensely talented young man who never feels like a child actor. He springs off the screen as if he was a old master at his craft. There isn’t a squeaky wheel or weak player in the bunch.

Like all of Taika Waititi’s work, the film has layers of messages and meanings. What at first looks like a simple spoof is soon revealed to be a story of a boy trying to define himself against a father who isn’t present. Jojo’s father has been fighting in the war and hasn’t been in contact with his family for a long time. Jojo tries to find some sense of the person he’s supposed to become and the Nazi party offers some answers. It looks at how easy it is to fall into a toxic ideology. Jojo’s journey becomes deeper and richer as the film goes on and he grows and changes as the world around him grows and changes. There is so much in every scene here. There is humor. There is horror. There is honesty and truth.

For those looking for some kind of black comedy or hard hitting scathing satire, they won’t find what they are looking for. It is satirical, but it is firing on a different wavelength. Because of its perspective and its approach to the material it won’t be the black comedy most people are expecting. For those looking for a heart warming tale of triumph against adversity they will be disappointed. This movie has elements of both. There are heart warming moments to be sure. There are moments that play on the heart strings and make the audience leap with warm hearted joy, but it’s not a hallmark movie. It’s not trying to reaffirm those feel good elements that give people the warm fuzzies. It is a complicated take on a complicated time.

Personally I loved it. It is my cup of tea. It really worked wonders for me throughout the film. I will definitely see it again, and I would recommend it highly to anybody. It might yield different results and gain different traction for different people depending on taste, but I loved it. A+

Little Women (2019)

This is an adaptation full of life and vibrant energy that boasts some wonderful performances, impeccable, cinematography, and a few big flaws. It is however a joy to watch and should definitely be sought out by anyone even with those unfamiliar with the book or previous adaptations.

The film is described as a coming of age story set in Connecticut during and following the Civil War. It is that only in the most rudimentary sense. The film is an encapsulation of the lives of a family of spirited women as they face the world around them and find their places in it. It really feels like a time machine at times. Like somehow writer/director Greta Gerwig was able to capture a series of moments from the lives of this family. The actors, characterizations, and period details all feel so genuine and full that the movie completely transports the viewer to a different time and place.

The family is made up of four sisters, Jo, (played perfectly by Saoirse Ronan) Amy, (a stunning performance by Florence Pugh) Meg, (a pretty good Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlon in the thankless role of the “perfect” sister).

Jo is a fiercely independent woman who wants to be a writer. Saoirse Ronan here imbues Jo with a willfulness and confidence that hides an internal battle about who she is vs who she’s supposed to be and what she wants vs what she needs. It’s a fantastic performance.

Emma Watson is good, but her performance feels unnatural at times and studied at others. She has some wonderful moments where she sheds this affectation, but her performance doesn’t feel entirely even.

Florence Pugh as Amy is incredible here. Early on Amy is a bratty and horrible little sister, later she is mature and self possessed and very serious about the world she lives in. Pugh is able to play an entire life in this movie and make it convincing and whole.

Eliza Scanlon plays Beth. Beth has a lot of small wordless scenes that convey so much, but Beth is a character who has an effect on those around her not so much a story of her own in this movie. Beth changes their neighbor, played brilliantly by Chris Cooper, her goodness has a profound impact on her sisters, and her strength in particular affects Jo. But she doesn’t really get her own story.

Using these sisters the film is able to fully explore a breadth of perspectives and ideas. Jo believes in independence and challenges Meg’s desire for marriage and a home. The wonderful thing about this movie is that it gives both perspectives their due. meg wants what she wants and just because it isn’t what Jo wants doesn’t make it invalid or less worthy. This film is full of such exchanges and discussions. These characters challenge each other and the viewer in wonderful ways.

The biggest drawback to the film is also one of its assets. It employs a loose time frame construction often cutting back and forth between the characters adult lives and their time spent as children growing up together. This cross cutting undermines the earlier scenes as they happen without context, and it creates confusing as to when and where we are in the story. However, later on it does make for a deeply impactful montage between two moments in Jo’s life. It would not have the emotional explosion it does without the cutting back and forth.

Another problem is with the ending. The film plays with the reality of the story in a way that makes sense only if the viewer knows the story of the books publishing history. The book was written by Louisa May Alcott in two parts, and for the second part her publisher demanded that she include a love interest for one character. Alcott threw in a love interest rather carelessly as a means of appeasing the publisher. The film makes a commentary on that publisher, but in doing so it breaks the reality of the movie. It calls into question the existence of an entire character in the movie. It twists the reality of the story in such a way that it may break the movie for some, or it’ll pass by entirely unnoticed. For me it broke the reality and distracted me from enjoying the ending of the story.

There is a scene in which Chris Cooper and Saoirse Ronan talk outside the house because Cooper’s character is too afraid to go inside, and it is one of the most heart wrenching scenes of any movie this year. It is full of heart and truth just like so much of this movie.

It is my cup of tea. A-