Marriage Story (2019)

She’s my favourite actress. Stage director Charlie (Adam Driver) runs a critically lauded off-Broadway theatre company in NYC where he is married to his leading lady Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) who is suffering following years of feeling stifled and his affair with a colleague. She returns to her hometown of LA where she’s appearing in a TV pilot and takes their developmentally-challenged eight-year old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to stay with her ageing actress mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty). She gets a sympathetic hearing from fierce divorce lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) whose counsel she accepts.  When Charlie arrives Nicole’s sister (Merrit Wever) serves him with divorce papers and he has to find a place to stay. Thirty days later when he’s back in New York at his theatre Nora calls him telling him he needs to file in LA in the next day or he’ll lose everything. He eventually lawyers up with a 90-year old Bert (Alan Alda) in LA and arrangements are finalised (55/45 custody according to Nora) while all their lives move on over the next year, reuniting at Halloween for trick or treating … He’s very competitive. This quasi-autobiographical tale by auteur Noah Baumbach should perhaps have been called Divorce Story, given that it has its roots in his separation from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when he left her for Greta Gerwig. Charlie’s control issues are mitigated by his thoughtfulness and charm; while Nicole’s retribution – she’s been to eleven divorce lawyers in LA thus narrowing his choice and leaving him in trouble at the eleventh hour! – qualify this for the tradition established by Kramer Vs. Kramer, that Ur-melodrama of lovely masculinity scorned. His backstory is lightly sketched – a childhood of alcohol, violence – while hers is in living colour, a dotty successful actress mother well played by Hagerty with a nice house in LA and good connections he can use for this legal problem, plus a sympathetic sister who messes up serving him the divorce papers.  There’s a hilarious scene when monster lawyer Jay (Ray Liotta) tells Charlie what he can do for him for $950 an hour. Charlie’s lack of interest in Nicole resonates when she’s nominated for an Emmy and he presumes it’s for acting – he’s stunned that she got it for directing yet she feels compelled to explain, Now I know what you were always so obsessed about. This is Marriage as Stockholm Syndrome.  The nagging feeling that everything significant happened before this drama, reported by third parties and regaled by lawyers besets this story of performance. Other than a supposedly authentic private confrontation their emotions are largely private, except when Charlie breaks into Sondheim’s Being Alive as he pours his heart out to his theatre family: misery loves Company. And at the end, when Nicole overhears him reading her hand-written therapy notes about him to Henry and he cries. The child is used as a funnel for his parents’ feelings. Nicole performs with her actual family at a jolly party. She is the writer and performer, he needs other people’s words. She’s LA, he’s NYC. The performances are good, as far as they go, but there’s a sense of withholding about the entire enterprise, that he has felt everything while she simply moves on with her life away from him after walking out of mediation because she doesn’t want to perform for a male therapist while her husband gives her helpful notes, ever the director. Meanwhile, his affair with his colleague is played down while he makes regular trips to LA to bond with their son. What a very masculine perspective:  it commands admiration rather than empathy, sacrificing big emotion for a kind of fairness, invariably leaning towards Charlie. At the centre of it all is the curdling marriage, the unknowability of people, what brings them together, what forces them apart. It’s a mystery, even to them. Am I paying for this joke?

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Kramer Vs Kramer

I’m sorry I was late but I was busy making a living. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic ad man who returns home late on the biggest night of his career to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) packing her suitcase claiming she needs to find herself. She deserts him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry) and he has to find a way of taking care of the boy while juggling a busy career. He initially blames their divorced neighbour Margaret (Jane Alexander) for putting Joanna up to it but they become friends as he muddles through cooking, school appointments, playing in the park and working at home late at night while managing life alone with Billy. Then 15 months later Joanna shows up looking for custody and Ted loses his job because he can’t balance his work and life commitments. A court battle looms with the courts already tilted in favour of the mother … I have worked very hard to become a whole human being and I don’t think I should be punished for that.  For film scholar Hannah Hamad this is the Ur-film of Hollywood post-feminist paternal dramas, a mode that has dominated the industry ever since (just watch every movie out of America since 1980, more or less!). It’s also the film that put domestic melodrama back at the forefront of American cinema, garnering most of the principal Academy Awards in its year for something that had it been made in France would have been just another humdrum if moving drama. But it has stars – and is simply brilliantly performed with a naturalism that is breathtaking. Hoffman is great as the guy who has to get to know how to live as a working and caretaking parent. The kitchen scenes between him and Henry doing father-son bonding are fantastic. It’s smart too about the working environment and the boys’ club it engenders; and tough on the idea that any woman would want more from life than catering to the needs of a small child:  when Ted sleeps with office lawyer Phyllis (JoBeth Williams) she leaves early not to go home and give a kid breakfast but to go downtown for a meeting. Writer/director Robert Benton adapted Avery Corman’s novel and exhibits none of the quaint, quirky humour that distinguishes his other films. Slickly done, touching and hot-button on all the social issues of the day:  not just a film, a cultural event. I didn’t know it would happen to me. MM #2800

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

The Predator (2018)

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Did you not see the new Predator? It’s evolving. The universe’s most lethal hunters are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves with DNA from other species. Only a ragtag crew of ex-Marines (Keegan-Michael Key, Trevante Rhodes, Alfie Allen,Thomas Jane, Augusto Aguilera) led by renegade Army Ranger sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose autistic son (Jacob Tremblay) with estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) accidentally triggers the Predator’s (Brian A. Prince) return to Earth, can stop the end of mankind.  With the help of kick-ass evolutionary biologist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) they launch an all-out attempt to tackle this new hybrid alien but also have to deal with treacherous Government agent Will Treager (Sterling K. Brown), director of The Stargazer Project ... Fuck me in the face with an aardvark. Part Four in the franchise and not just a sequel but a remake/reboot of the first one (1987) which was a rite of passage in the Eighties, one of the era’s defining films and auteur Shane Black was in it (in the supporting role of Rick Hawkins). And he brings to it his typical brand of smarts – witty dialogue, generic tropes souped up and remade faster and shinier while the Predator hunts and he himself is hunted. As we know from his other movies, Black likes kids and here he’s a bullied savant (upgraded with the very current condition of autism); instead of Christmas we have Halloween (bringing to mind E.T.); and the motley crew of mentally ill soldiers remind us of The Dirty Dozen except they’re not as nasty although that won’t save them. Beneath the message – re-design human DNA at your peril, appreciate the accidental genius Nature occasionally creates – it’s fast-moving, funny and most unusually for an actioner these days comes in at a trim 95 minutes. Bliss, of sorts.  Written by Fred Dekker & Black, from characters created by Jim Thomas and John Thomas. Nice reverse psychology. I can do that, too. Don’t go fuck yourself

The Karate Kid (1984)

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Go find your balance. Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) moves West to Southern California with his embarrassing mother, Lucille (Randee Heller) and quickly finds himself the target of a group of school bullies led by Johnny (William Zabka) who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo led by psycho Nam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove). Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita), an unassuming Okinawan repairman at his apartment complex who just happens to be a martial arts master himself. He  winds up doing a lot of chores in exchange for karate lessons and starts putting together his own ideas about life from Mr. Miyagi’s aphorisms. Unfortunately, Daniel likes a lovely upper class girl at school Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) who also happens to be dating Johnny, who simply continues his campaign of bullying. Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate (Goju) and preparing him to compete against the brutal tactics of Cobra Kai … Come from inside you, always right picture. This fusion of Carrie with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Rocky (which shares director John Avildsen) is equal parts feel-good morality tale and teen fantasy, with a transformation story and a nice boy at its heart. Daniel is played beautifully by Macchio – goofy and cute, irritating and charming, all at once – while the bullies are clichés (maybe they all are) and the girl is just super nice. A little more heft is given the story with Daniel’s resentment at not having been given a choice at the house move, putting him into the path of these violent classmates whose actions are worthy of adult vigilantes (and numbering Chad McQueen in their midst); and Mr. Miyagi’s life isn’t a bed of roses either as Daniel discovers when he finds him drunk and reads a letter.  If you’re not up and cheering at the pleasing, rabble-rousing ending then you should probably check your pulse. It’s too long, but it’s pretty wonderful. And the soundtrack is fantastic.  Written by Robert Mark Kamen. Wax on, wax off

Spinning Man (2018)

Spinning Man

One’s experience of guilt is a conditioned response which objective reasoning can  overcome… Evan Birch (Guy Pearce) is a family man and published professor of the philosophy of language at a distinguished university, where his charm and reputation have made his class very popular. When a female student named Joyce (Odeya Rush) goes missing, Evan’s previous extra-marital liaisons make his wife Ellen (Minnie Driver) question his alibi. Gruff but meticulous police Detective Malloy (Pierce Brosnan) has even more reason to be suspicious when crucial evidence makes Evan the prime suspect in the girl’s disappearance… Does his behaviour makes his arguments any less valid? George Harrar’s tricksy novel gets a taut adaptation by Matthew Aldrich but it’s oddly directed by Simon Kaijser who’s chosen to shoot everything through a ghastly and offputting green filter as though every shot were there to prove Pearce is a serial killer with several shots at hip-high angle which makes it even odder. However there are enough red herrings and details in the performances to make this a diverting mystery. The protagonist even spends time laying mousetraps which is a nice metaphor for his own predicament. And ours, in point of fact. We are being played with. Truth is relative, as Birch tells his students. You’ll probably figure this out before the conclusion but it’s a bit of fun getting there. Pearce is good as a highly suspect individual – a practised liar with memory issues who is catnip to female students and lusts after the girl in the hardware store.  It’s a role that has clear reminders of his breakout film Memento.  Brosnan meanwhile plays it close to his chest as the man on his tail who tells him they’re both in the business of proof.  I can’t move again:  Driver’s eyes betray a recent makeover. Sigh. Prove this chair exists/ What chair? 

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …