To get personal for a minute, the reason I haven’t been writing here is because my life has been turned gloriously upside down, plus it’s been the holidays, plus we’ve had lots of company, plus I’ve been prepping for teaching four film courses this semester instead of one. Since there is no way I can properly “catch up,” I’m providing some brief thoughts on the films I saw recently. So in no particular order:
Great and almost unnerving performance by Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, a good performance by Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and another excellent performance by Margot Robbie. The film didn’t find the sweet spot in this mash-up of politics, news, allegiances, and political correctness, so it doesn’t quite coalesce as it should. It will be a perfect Rorschach test for future study, however, in the political and intellectual divides currently wreaking havoc among us as views try to come to terms with how they are supposed to feel about the people and issues in this movie. It will be ignored at the Oscars, in spite of a few nominations.
Thought by some to be a near-masterpiece, this features one of the two great Adam Sandler performances of his (dramatic) career. It’s intense, loud, fast, profane to the max, and has exhausting camerawork and editing. It also features perfect casting by Idina Menzel in a non-musical role. Since I didn’t find Sandler’s character as charming as I believe the film hoped to present his character, the movie was a thoroughly unpleasant experience about bad people doing bad things.
The most adult movie of the year in many ways, this features great performances by Adam Driver (the actor of 2019, IMHO), Scarlett Johansson, and Laura Dern (who will win the Oscar, and deservedly, for her performance here—she actually made me forget I was watching the actress). It’s intense, sometimes infuriating, and lean and mean in execution. Probably writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most accomplished film. It’s not as “big” as The Irishman or Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but it’s nearly as good. If you’re married and thinking of divorcing, see this first, and see what can get unleashed when things get out of control. (There’s a happier ending than you might think.)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
I hit a couple of films from “Hollywood’s Greatest Year”. This featured a 32-year-old Bette Davis playing a 60-something Queen Elizabeth I and a mostly fictitious relationship with the supposedly much younger Lord Essex, played surprisingly well by 31-year-old Errol Flynn. The two didn’t get along (which doesn’t show), and Davis reportedly thought little of Flynn’s acting talent; much later, viewing it on television, she changed her mind. Yes, of course she’s the powerhouse, but Flynn is actually quite good, especially with heightened and challenging dialogue. He was known primarily for his looks and ability to swashbuckle, but I didn’t remember what a lovely speaking voice he possessed. A rather high-toned affair, but I can now cross it off my list.
The Two Popes
This might have suffered by being on Netflix rather than in the theaters. It’s a highly intelligent, often funny, and sometimes moving account of the move from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis. It’s a marvelously crafted film that covers much more territory—life events as well as thought—than what one might expect. It’s actually quite entertaining and very intelligent. People who actually READ the Bible may catch a rather obvious goof in a Bible reference. (So sad that folks who did such a deep dive into Catholic doctrine and the personal history of the current pope would have messed this up. If anyone taking a good look at the script, or acting the words, or being on set when the mistake was made, had actually spent any time reading the Bible, that mistake would not be in there.) The powers that be have put great actor Jonathan Pryce (Francis) in the lead category at the Oscars, and Anthony Hopkins (Benedict) in the supporting category, and they both got nominations. They are equal partners, and they are both fantastic. When I first saw the first half of the film, I thought that Hopkins was doing the better job. Then the film pays more attention to Francis, and Pryce steals the limelight. Two great actors with a smart script and a creative director. There’s a bit too much left-leaning politics toward the end, and the film loses its perspective at that point. Otherwise, a nearly great film.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Yes, it’s neither current nor old. But so good. If you haven’t seen it, do so. So incredibly creative and fresh.
A ground-breaking film that is most definitely not for everyone. This film is opening the door to Asian films as few others have. Meticulously crafted, so well-acted, and there is twist after twist. I didn’t love the last 15 minutes, and I didn’t believe this last unexpected (or was it??) direction the film took. A lock for Best International Film, and a genuine contender for Best Film and Best Director.
A flat-out entertaining film. Smart, funny, and a mash-up of the game of Clue and Agatha Christie. Lead Daniel Craig doesn’t always hold on to his accent, but certainly holds on to the fun he’s having in the role. The movie is a triumph in its keeping a slightly exaggerated tone throughout while remaining believable, grounded, and fun—tough to do. This is what they used to call a movie-movie. Great cast, good acting, fun plot line, bigger than life. Don’t miss this one.
Of Mice and Men (1939)
Another from “the great year.” Surprisingly long takes, with long scenes playing out with a static camera, or just some smooth tracking work. Lon Chaney, Jr., known as a generally bad actor who could never approach the heights of his father’s work, and who is more known for playing movie monsters, turns in the best and most solid work of his career. Very much a film of its time, and very much a film adaptation of a play, the best part of it for me was the fluid camerawork associated with director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1931 version of The Front Page). Again, another box for me to check off.
No, not the new version, but I prepared myself by seeing the 1949 overproduced MGM version. A lovely and luminous young Elizabeth Taylor, a surprisingly young Janet Leigh, a completely wrong Margaret O’Brien (only because two young), and a surprise to me, a performance by June Allyson that actually worked and that I enjoyed. Too lush by far, but it set me up for seeing the new version well.
Ford v Ferrari
Another old-fashioned movie-movie that is completely entertaining. Matt Damon is an under-appreciated actor, and does well here, but Christian Bale once again transforms himself into his character. For those who love good acting, car racing, and true stories, this is your film. It’s getting a little lost right how, but will become a well-remembered film, if not something of a classic.
Quick thoughts on The Golden Globes
In one sense, completely predictable. And yet 1917 for Best Picture-Drama, and for Best Director. Few saw that coming, and it pushes the film to the front for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Jennifer Lopez lost for Best Supporting Actress for Hustlers (and then failed to get an Oscar nomination). Is that fair? This is the Hollywood Foreign Press, a relatively small group of writers from other countries writing about American films, so there is no logic. Ricky Gervais, whom I normally don’t really like but whom I’ve enjoyed at the Globes, was just too distant this year, and pulled the evening down, a real regret. Michelle Williams, I love you as an actress—you are so very diverse and so very talented. You are an American treasure. But your faulty thinking/speaking that the award is also for the person and the choices they’ve made is simply ridiculous, and was an excuse for your divisive rant that did what Gervais warned against—it veered once again into politics, with virtue signaling that could have been seen on the moon. Michele, your thought connections were faulty, as was your topic. Lastly, I believe the four major film acting awards are a complete preview of the Oscar winner—Phoenix, Zellweger, Pitt, and Dern. We’ll see!