Little Women — 6/10

LITTLE WOMEN (2019, Greta Gerwig)

It’s fine. Builds up steam as it goes and finishes strong, mostly on the shoulders of an exceptional cast doing their damndest. But it’s still another theatrically staged, respectable adaptation of a popular novel, and no amount of self-conscious meta-analysis and chronology blending can make up for the just-okayness of the story.

Hard to believe someone under 55 wrote the joke in the first five minutes where a character’s dress catches a flame from a nearby fireplace, a man says “You’re on fire!” and she says “I know,” smiling and writing furiously, only to be told again “No… YOU’RE ON FIRE!” which she finally notices before a helpful bystander stamps it out. How many times have you seen that hoary old dustbox of a scenario played out in movies and TV? I’m setting the over/under at 23.

By jumbling the timeline, Gerwig is calling attention to her own authorship of the story, but also making parallels with her protagonist — Jo, of course, was a writer in Alcott’s original novel, but here she’s also writing the novel “Little Women,” turning the movie into an exercise in nesting doll art-imitating-life-imitating-and-so-on, which then makes Gerwig more of the main character than Jo. By the end, Jo’s interactions with Tracy Letts’s publisher Mr. Dashwood mirror the true-life partnership between Alcott and Thomas Niles, right down to the perceived dullness of the first few chapters (and subsequent confidence instilled by the teens who loved it). All this sweaty metaness really just comes down to writing what you know, with little to no imagination.

So the result is some nice costumes, some manipulative tear-jerking amidst hermetic, handsomely-staged period sets, letting out almost no air aside from the performances of Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh, whose chemistry is off the charts and who reach heights of such earnestness and fiery three-dimensionality you wish Gerwig had gotten over herself and Jo’s narcissistic fealty (either to source novel or life experience, respectively) and just made a new story about those two. Then we might have been spared the hilarious miscasting of Bob Odenkirk as not only a Civil War vet but also as Meryl Streep’s brother.

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1917 — 10/10

1917 (2019, Sam Mendes)

I’m as surprised as you are! This thing has so much stacked against it, both fairly and unfairly. It’s unabashed Oscar bait with can’t-miss subject matter (the unsung heroes of WWI); a show-offy gimmick of basically being a oner a-la the mostly reviled BIRDMAN (it’s actually a “two-er,” since midway through it cuts to black and opens back up hours later); and directed by Sam Mendes, who’s never made a great film, and whose last effort, SPECTRE, was, if not the worst Bond movie ever, a numbing and dour slog through obligatory IP so bereft of creativity you’d think it was directed by Shawn Mendes.

And yet! Remember that scene in OLD SCHOOL when Will Ferrell’s lifetime-moron Frank seemingly gets possessed exorcist-style and defeats James Carville in a debate? I think that’s what happened to Mendes. Something entered his body and orchestrated this titanic ode to the human condition, a philosophical treatise on the relationship of cinema to the battlefield, and a visceral experience so vigorously lachrymose it forced me to pull over to the side of the road while driving home from the movie theater, sobbing violently in my car like Tom Hanks at the end of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

So let me start with a potential common complaint against this: i.e. the oner disease. Some critics so proud of their own ability to sniff out directorial arrogance have decided to categorically dismiss oner movies as showy and pointlessly distracting — and they’ll go into 1917 already hating it by design. But showy, by itself, isn’t necessarily bad. VERTIGO is showy, too. So what? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And what Deakins is doing here is the opposite of distracting; he puts the camera in impressively head-scratching places in order to give you the sense of time uninterrupted (making the mid-film break and time jump all the more jarring) — an amount of time integral to the hero’s journey and a key ingredient of the suspenseful, harrowing odyssey Schofield and Blake embark upon.

In film language, if edit points are periods, then a oner can be a run-on sentence, but Mendes and Deakins find a poetry in the lack of periods, one that eluded BIRDMAN and VICTORIA (and maybe even RUSSIAN ARK?) — such as images that combine wide compositions, silhouettes, close-ups, two-shots, and inserts, all in one fluid three-second move. Deakins also wisely shies away from conventionally beautiful exterior lighting — these aren’t sun-dappled fields and lush forests: they’re gloomy, cloudy skies overseeing white-washed trenches of dead bodies; foggy, flame-scorched woods, evidence of the ghosts of battles left behind — much like the name “Karla” scrawled on a bunker wall in chalk with a heart on it, a masterfully subtle touch of production design to remind us of the shared humanity of our enemies.

And yet even within this carefully ugly visual palette, Deakins will follow up a vision of despair with a painterly composition two seconds later, simply by tilting up his camera to frame a weeping soldier in front of a floral tree and babbling creek. As Malick did with THE THIN RED LINE, Mendes juxtaposes the indifferent, awesome beauty of nature with the terror of war, placing our species’ innately entropic tendency towards violence in an environment of harmony and quiet peace. The sense of loss is palpable both in Schofield’s individual experience and in the grander portrait of an epoch of human history where inconceivable displays of savagery exist alongside displays of distinctly unique courage.

Like classic Greek theater, this movie takes place within 24 hours, but encompasses life born, lived, examined, and extinguished — our heroes awaken in a calm field to march unknowingly to their perilous orders; Schofield himself drinks milk in the adolescence of his journey, then later, in his hardened future, passes it along to an infant in a delicate display of fatherhood (and glimpse of familial life he’s avoided and may never achieve). He learns of mercy and of randomness, of loss and regret, of triumph and of absurdity, and of the capacity of humans at their lowest to bond in art, community, and performance. A bloodied hand is thrust into the cavity of a bloodier wound; an airplane crashes through a two-dimensional painting of a house once occupied; a scavenging rat can be responsible for tripping a wire that buries men alive; an encroaching figure can be friend or enemy, and only darkness can mask his identity… these are the pieces of a tapestry that evokes no less than the continued struggle we endure in order to find meaning in a meaningless world: a godless universe that heaps untold amounts of tragedy on the unsuspecting and the undeserving, and asks us to continue rolling the boulder up the hill. If we save lives, are we delaying the inevitable or rescuing generations? The answer will evade us eternally, and we can only rest periodically, putting our head against a tree, and close our eyes to dream of what could have been.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — 5/10

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019, JJ Abrams)

[I’m going to spoil absolutely everything, in case you’re curious – consider yourself warned]

Ahhh, yes. That’s the Star Wars I recognize. With decades of throwaway kids movie after throwaway kids movie, it seemed clear this money-grubbing franchise dedicated more to disposable merchandise and tranquilizing children for two hours knew where its lane was. Then, starting in 2015, Lucasfilm accidentally made three actual good movies in a row: THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE (perhaps the best of the bunch), and THE LAST JEDI (easily the most challenging and artistic-minded one ever; as low as the bar was). I was fooled into thinking perhaps something might come of this. But then SOLO happened, and now the main-line episodes have wrapped up just like RETURN OF THE JEDI: a confused and desperate junkpile of lights and noises, appealing either to 8 year-olds or the 8 year-old brain inside the adults who have no interest in confronting any issue of substance.

There are brief instances in the screenplay where ARGO and BATMAN v SUPERMAN scribe Chris Terrio introduces his pet theme about the corruption of power and terrorism: a key line from Keri Russell (repeated later by Oscar Isaac) mentions that the Empire wins by making you think you’re alone; when actually “there are more of us.” One can extrapolate metaphors about how domestic terrorists (mass shooters, suicide bombers, alt-right Incels) are born; or even one about our current climate of Republicans vs. decent people. But even Terrio gets buried by Abrams’s larger concern, which is the difficult job of wrapping up dozens of disparate storylines in an ever-bloated universe, all while servicing fans like a greedy carnival barker. A creaky Billy Dee Williams is dressed up and shoved in front of the camera to spew some nonsense about how the real force was the friends we made along the way; cutting-room-floor footage of the late Carrie Fisher is retrofitted and CG’d into the story awkwardly; and cameos from Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford get to ghost-dad their way into cheesy goodbyes. It all reads like a massive corporation soothing its fickle and butt-hurt fanbase by petting its head, showing them their favorite toys, and letting them play for two hours without enforcing any rules, just so they can nap later this afternoon.

There are moments of earnest and earned humor (Abrams also delivered gags in FORCE AWAKENS that were the funniest parts of this whole franchise), and occasionally some terrific acting — especially from Adam Driver, who can say more with his face than any dialogue could convey. But there’s also cornball galore, and too many times where Daisy Ridley is saddled with green screen moments where she just scrunches up her face in fake-determination, hoping that whenever the VFX are finished her acting looks better (it doesn’t). The plot is characteristically ludicrous (grandpa Palpatine wants Rey to kill him; when she doesn’t he gets mad and tries to kill her, but then she kills him anyway; what?) and I couldn’t stop laughing when Poe is flying a spaceship and says he can see two human beings from miles away just clinging to a bar. It’s Lucasfilm’s fault for delivering a thoroughly mediocre theme park ride disguised as expensive entertainment. But it’s my fault for expecting anything better.

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In Fabric — 7/10

IN FABRIC (2019, Peter Strickland)

Like being told a dirty joke by the smartest art professor at Oxford. Strickland knows all the rules and has all the tools, but he doesn’t care about any of them. He kind of sets this in the ’70s (based on the telephones, TVs, and some of the wardrobe we see), but other characters (like Vincent) are present-day concoctions, or maybe out of the ’80s. He introduces story strands and lets them dangle, or becomes disinterested in them. There’s an abrupt gear shift that happens about 80 minutes into a 115-minute movie. Every scene that might have been scary or emotionally effective is smothered by a dry, wicked sense of humor that threatens to turn the entire charade into a screwball comedy or satire.

On the margins, these rule breaks are exhilarating (my favorite is the subtle change in a character’s recorded outgoing answering machine message, which changes from robotic to crying after a major incident), but the central narrative is left gasping for air because Strickland is so busy being cheeky. He throws a cabal of witches in with a laundry repairman who can hypnotize anyone into a catatonic state by reciting washing machine parts; plus a series of blind dates who use the same pudding coupons, officious bosses with uptight rules, pursuit of discounts, Christmas department store sales demonizing the consumerist zombies populating the holidays, and mannequins with pubic hair. I’m not sure any of it amounts to anything more than a fucked-up tone poem, a BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO take on giallo, or a bullshit fever dream about a killer dress, but it almost doesn’t matter when it’s this consistently funny, surprising, and weird. MVPs are three-fold: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, forever talented; Fatma Mohamed having to negotiate the hysterical dialogue Strickland forces down her throat; and sound recordist Rob Entwistle (unknown if he’s related to The Who’s bassist, but probably?) whose foley work and audio mixing highlights the violence of scissors, the flowing of silk, and the breathing of the damned.

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Uncut Gems — 8/10

UNCUT GEMS (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie)

Advance word on this movie has been building for over three months, at least since its premiere at Telluride and later Toronto. With all the warnings and salutations (“it’s a two-hour panic attack!”) it had built up such a head of steam that it seemed ready to absolutely explode onto screens in its public release this past weekend. And almost as a response to the hype, the movie doesn’t so much unfurl or unspool as it does detonate in every direction, leaving you gasping for air not only mid-film, but even as the credits roll. It’s that much of a blood-pressure coronary.

The Safdies’ two previous narrative features, HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT and GOOD TIME, also seemed to be building up to whatever this is: the momentum has been accelerating, following Safdie protagonists with increasing exercise and sweat. What Sandler is doing here is nothing short of a miracle, both for him and the movie — his Howard Ratner is a heaving zit of desperation, manically screaming at everyone, frantically spreading lies around faster than his own (and other people’s) money, trying to stay one step ahead of the doom that part of him knows he can’t escape. Watching Howard dodge collectors, berate others on the phone, chase after people, and pray for the results of sports games wildly out of his control is like watching Indiana Jones try to outrun the boulder rolling down the ramp at his back, but knowing that the only direction Indy can run is into a brick wall.

Sandler has been shouting dialogue for decades, both in his shrill comedies (BIG DADDY, HAPPY GILMORE) and his ventures into drama (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIS), because his face and attitude seem to invite mania. But the Safdies have given him a role that somehow requires even louder screaming and unchecked freneticism, resulting in Sandler’s finest work to date. He’s found a role that challenges his own tendency to yell, because here the material is more desperate than even Sandler’s need is to entertain. And not only does his anger and paranoia work as realistic and compelling, but his resulting sadness does too — when he’s crying upon mounting failures, or nodding his head to encourage someone to say yes to everything he’s asking for, the vulnerability is palpable and almost too much to bear.

The Safdies have elevated their craft, too. Visually, they’re now utilizing the lens of Hall of Fame DP Darius Khondji (SEVEN, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS), whose grain is somehow more beautiful than most people’s landscape shots. Even when he’s shooting a club in blacklight or darkness, Khondji highlights the orange sweatshirt worn by Lakeith Stanfield or the neon pink of Sandler’s shirt. The script pursues some themes explored by GOOD TIME as well, notably the tendency of its white male lead to exploit and take advantage of blacks in order to keep his own head above water (Howard has zero reservations, if he even has awareness, of where his jewels come from, nor how he sees professional athletes as chess pieces in his sports betting habit). From a mid-film centerpiece symphony of panic (a buzzed magnetic door that won’t open, a doctor calling with results, a poisoned fish tank, etc.) to the climactic basketball game, this is a movie you don’t so much watch as you get dragged behind it across pavement at 100 mph. Buckle the fuck up.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire — 8/10

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019, Céline Sciamma)

About as fresh a take on this well-worn material as you’ll get. We’ve seen dozens of rearview-mirror passionate affairs, in everything from BRIEF ENCOUNTER to BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY to CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (I love all three of those, for what it’s worth), and it’s to Sciamma’s great credit that she manages to build this movie from elements seemingly flown in from outer space nevertheless. It’s resolutely silent and score-free, so that the few brief musical interludes (a piano flirtation, a campfire choir, a symphony orchestra finale) hit extra hard. It earns all its power from either the movement of the camera or the lack thereof, including when it cuts to close-up and when it avoids faces entirely. Even moments that should read as heavy-handed (a girl gets an abortion while a baby’s hand holds her finger) somehow feel perfectly within the tone of the picture, assuredly directed and steadfast in its composition. And it isn’t just about a fleeting affair to be longed for; it’s also a pro-art essay on the relationship between creator and subject; a fantasy view on a world unburdened by both the gaze and physical control of men; and a tone poem where elements like fire, fabric, landscape, and oil become characters with life and vibrancy — contrasted with shots like the static-camera observation of food-prep where sliced mushrooms, green onions, cutting boards, a table, and a fireplace become still-life paintings from 250 years ago. It’s a movie that’s both still bleeding and one that’s a relic from a time none of us will ever experience.

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Marriage Story — 7/10

MARRIAGE STORY (2019, Noah Baumbach)

In the 1980s, an adolescent Noah Baumbach witnessed his novelist father divorcing his literary critic mother in Brooklyn. You don’t need to know this background to watch Baumbach’s 2005 dramedy THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, about an adolescent (Jesse Eisenberg) living in Brooklyn through the divorce between his two writer parents, to sense that there’s a lot of autobiography there — and it doesn’t matter, because great art takes specific details and makes them universal by appealing to larger audiences. In that film’s case, by telling a story about family in general, and about children coming to terms with the flaws of their parents.

Also in 2005, Baumbach married actress Jennifer Jason Leigh — whom he met in theater, and who made her breakthrough in the teen comedy FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH — and later had one son with her, before she served him in 2010, beginning a three-year divorce process that forced Baumbach to write 2012’s MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED in order to pay his lawyer. This is more information you don’t need to know in order to watch MARRIAGE STORY — about a director being served divorce papers by his theatrical actress wife (who made her breakthrough in a teen comedy), the toll it takes on their one son, and the burdensome cost of divorce layers (necessitating the director to take shitty hackwork) — because again, it’s plainly obvious how autobiographical it is. This time around, though, it doesn’t quite transcend the specifics and have the kind of broad universal effect SQUID had, or even his tremendous 2013 work FRANCES HA. It doesn’t feel like the way Marriage is, the way Love is, the way Divorce Happens, or What It Is To Be a Parent During a Separation in any universal way, more than it feels like what all those things specifically were to Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. (By contrast, as poorly executed and painfully unfunny as it was, at least DOWNSIZING managed to turn Alexander Payne’s divorce drama with Sandra Oh into something greater than his own particular baggage).

So, despite the stellar turns from Johansson and Driver (and Dern, Alda, Wever, and Liotta, etc.), and the acutely realized moments of humor, sadness, and irony, maybe that’s why this didn’t quite land an emotional impact with me the way SQUID and FRANCES did, or even THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES. The choice to hide Driver’s anger entirely until he explodes during the centerpiece argument scene might make sense theoretically (Charlie is a man who has had to hide a lot of his emotions throughout), but dramatically it comes out of nowhere and fractures Driver’s character and performance in a way that seems contrived. Johansson, by contrast, is much more straight forward; she seems locked in and aware of who she is from moment one — and that makes her movie-long arc of finding her voice and asserting her individuality welcome and enviable. And even the tiny moments she has are pitch-perfect: like when she holds steady during an early conversation with Charlie until she crosses through a doorway into a room where she can be alone, and bursts into tears.

One more thing I want to address is that I’ve seen some social media coffee-housing that the divorce lawyers aren’t really the enemy here. Some critics are appalled that anyone would take away from this movie that Dern, Liotta & co. are bad guys. And yes, Dern is so good that she creates a likable character on charisma alone. But she isn’t a heroine gifting Johansson the justice that’s rightfully hers. According to Baumbach (in a Director’s Guild interview with Ben Stiller), the lawyers smother the real voices of this couple, and turn the divorce into simply dividing assets and competing against each other. And the centerpiece apartment fight is the two of them getting their voices back, and re-learning how to communicate between each other, since that was taken from them once the lawyers got involved. Clearly, categorically, Baumbach sees the lawyers as detrimental to the relationship between Nicole and Charlie, so if you want to argue that the movie doesn’t see it that way (which you certainly can), then the extent to which the lawyers aren’t enemies is the extent to which Baumbach failed to get his point across.

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