Quick Cuts: Winter Holiday Films

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.

Uncut Gems

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.

Marriage Story

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.

Knives Out

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.

Little Women

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!

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Most of the positive press about this film has to do with “how much we need a movie like this right now,” and there’s a good deal of validity to those sentiments. An openly emotional movie that neutralizes cynicism is a tonic to the current zeitgeist. What’s often being lost in the discussion (which too often has a condescending political edge to it) is the actual film itself.

A Beautiful Day, directed by Marielle Heller (last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? and some television work) is a slightly bumpy, direct, and solidly/stolidly directed film whose emotional punches arise from its plot and especially from its two main actors. It’s loosely based on a real-life writer, Tom Junod, who wrote a piece on Mr. Rogers for Esquire Magazine back in 1998 and formed a life-long friendship with the television star. Junod becomes Lloyd Vogel here, as his film character’s issues with his dad became so dramatic in the screenplay that Junod asked for a name change. The writers also apparently added some of their own experiences as relatively new fathers to add color and depth to the character. So proceed understanding that that this is a “based on a true story” story.

The set-up is classic if not cliché. Cynical person/writer/whatever-you-want is forced to connect with someone/something that challenges their cynicism and they come away (spoiler alert) changed. Fortunately, the cynical one is played by Matthew Rhys (TV’s “The Americans”), an actor of range that brings an intensity always and a dark pessimism and sarcasm when he wants. Great casting choice, and he does a very good job, hitting every beat. A clear, straight performance like this was what is required when you’re pairing with someone perceived as a mystery.

Of course the focus of attention has largely been on America’s film Everyman Tom Hanks, another excellent casting choice. There may be someone else in the country that could bring Hanks’ All-American persona, acting chops, and absolute sincerity to this role, but I can’t think of one who could bring all three. His is the first name in the cast, but is essentially a lesser co-lead, and the producers are clearly offering him for nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Hanks is facing a giant acting challenge here, and does some of his best recent work in the role. Fred Rogers isn’t the easiest person to portray, either as a television performer doing his own singing, puppetry, and acting on his show, but also as a television producer, husband, father, and in this film’s presentation of him, a living legend known for his kindness and nearly pastoral ability to focus in on a person’s needs. It seems as if we can see Hanks working hard to be the character at times, but it could just as easily be Fred Rogers being as measured, calm, and thoughtful as he reportedly was. In either case, it works. Playing quiet and deeply caring (in both the emotional and active senses) is as great a challenge as doing Shakespeare well.

Apparently, there was a great deal of resistance from the Rogers camp to having a film about the man, but they were ultimately won over by this approach. He’s not a saint here (in terms of unattainability), and seems unnecessarily enigmatic at times, a fault that might be the screenplay’s as much as Hanks’. The script, however, doesn’t always fall into easy and obvious answers, and sometimes lets silence doing its talking; for instance, Vogel asks Rogers about his celebrity, making a sharp distinction (in his mind) between the person of Fred Rogers and the character the writer is assuming he plays on television. It would have been easy for an obvious slam-dunk explanation that there is no separation between the real-life Rogers and his TV persona, but the film wisely has Rogers absorb but not answer the question, an astute “omission” that lets the viewer fill in the gap themselves.

There is a playful element in the film that can come off as cute and imaginative, or twee and cloying. I’m somewhere in the middle on it. There is the obviously artificial TV set of “the neighborhood” and then there is the reality of the film. The film works to blend the two into one, which is perhaps a nod to the fact that both the person and character of Mr. Rogers are the same. But as the film moves into deeper dramatic territory, this effect is less powerful, even distracting. The film, like Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, changes its aspect ratio, but not to differentiate time periods, but to distinguish the television work (1.33:1) from the rest of the film (the normal modern 1.85:1). That more subtle differentiation might have been enough.

This is as good a non-documentary film on Fred Rogers that we are likely to ever get. Hanks in the lead role. A solid performance from an actor playing a cynic who is finally convinced of Mr. Roger’s sincerity, and in fact allows FR to change his life. Plus the wise move of having Rogers being the secondary character rather than the first, the more to objectively view him, my dear. In spite of the rather traditional arc that the lead has to make, and the back-and-forth between performance and reality that doesn’t always work, this film is worth seeing for the two performances alone. Plus, hey, we could all use a little more Fred Rogers right now, yes?

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Frozen II

I usually consider sequels as a series of problems that need to be addressed. The huge success of Frozen made the sequel’s stakes higher and the creative decision-making both more focused and more challenging. We have to keep Elsa and Anna, of course, as well as Kristoff and Sven. But how do we add drama and tension? And what about Olaf? He was a delight in the first, so do we give him more to do in the sequel, and if so, how much more? Anna and Sven are in love, but where is their relationship now, and where is it going? Saving Arendelle worked last time, so do we put a twist on it and do it again?

What big challenges are going to come between the sisters? Do we dig into their pasts, or is everything in the present looking toward the future? And then there are the musical questions—how much, of course, and how can anyone ever hope to capture “Let it Go” lightning in a bottle a second time?

Fortunately, Frozen II answers these questions in as creative a way as one could hope, with one mild caveat. Disney is generally synonymous with magic, but the focus here is on the powers of the enchanted woods, and the elements therein. (You will have to break it to the children that in spite of its importance in the plot line, water doesn’t actually have memory.) The animism gets a bit thick, and the emphasis is probably the film’s one small weakness.  The plotline gets a bit muddied because of it, and the departure from normal Disney magic pulls the film away from the more direct and rather less complicated world that the film previously created with Frozen. Perhaps this is Disney’s way of darkening up the sequel, a common approach (The Godfather: Part Two, The Empire Strikes Back, etc.). While perhaps distancing the film from its younger viewers this way, it also opens it to some of the most elegant Fantasia-like imagery since, well, Fantasia.

The film is densely packed with wit, creativity, and stunning imagery. The sequences of Elsa in the woods are often strikingly lovely. The film rightly keeps the Elsa-Anna connection tight, but it verges on being a little much, as Anna is supposed to be in love with Kristoff, whose attempts at proposals are one of the bright spots. The sisterly love, though, is as sacrificial as before, and is probably the two films’ greatest theme. It’s so refreshing to see a Disney film that 1) doesn’t have a rebellious teen trying to get away from “abusive” authority figures, and 2) doesn’t have someone’s main lesson be to “follow their heart,” a motto that can get a person into trouble as much as it helps them find their way.

Everyone moves forward here—though I missed the shopkeeper (who appeared but had nothing to do). Elsa has a new journey—physically and emotionally. Anna makes what turns out to have the greatest journey of all in some ways, but no spoilers here. Kristoff grows up a little, and Olaf is busier than ever (a good thing for this viewer).

The biggest reservation that people have about this “not being as good as the first movie” is that it has simply, and necessarily, lost its freshness. The sisterly love has already been established (and here built on). We already know that Olaf is delightful. We have the main characters down, the locale is familiar, and the personal dynamics are set. But the film does all it can to make up for the loss in freshness with its humor, its intelligence, and its beauty. Nothing can replace the joy of finding new characters, new relationships, and new worlds, but Frozen II nearly makes up for that loss in other ways.

One difference that may or may not work for some viewers is the move toward traditional musical forms. There are moments where the film is something of an animated version of a mid-century M-G-M musical, and the form and the songs stick out a little. However, the main number by Kristoff is a satire on ‘80s music videos, and is funny enough to take one out of the film (in the best way—I couldn’t stop laughing). Olaf also does a couple of recap skits that are absolutely delightful (if you really want to see all of him, stay after the credits, but it’s not really worth it—and this is from a major Olaf fan.) Kristin Bell as Anna gets to show off her voice, especially in her upper range, in a way that occasionally threatens to overpower powerhouse Idina Menzel. Then of course there is “Into the Unknown,” the “Let it Go” song here sung by Menzel which will not be sung by as many little girls as “Let it Go,” but is a lovely song in and of itself. And BTW, “Let it Go” is lovely referred to in the film, as are several other moments of the first film; Frozen II seems to have a healthy and non-competitive relationship with its predecessor.

One of the film’s great strengths is that there is always something going on, and there are multiple layers of meaning and activity. Warning; the college professor is about to come out: A creative comparison could be made with an animated feature like The Good Dinosaur, which is as thin and uninteresting as Frozen II is dense and entertaining. The film will take several viewings to catch everything going on. Yes, I understand that Disney is a corporate behemoth that knows how to market well and encourages multiple viewings of its films. Here, though, it’s warranted. Frozen II is a delightful, beautifully drawn, funny, and smart film that shows what can be done when creative answers are as important as the bottom line.



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The Irishman

I managed to catch The Irishman in the movie theater before it debuts on Netflix November 27. In many ways, it’s Martin Scorsese’s elegiac masterpiece, a culmination of the techniques, actors, subject matter, and themes of much of his earlier work. But it does deeper, at a slightly slower pace, and smartly trades excitement for complexity and depth.

Like much of his earlier work, The Irishman includes the sweeping camera movement, violence, freeze frames, direct address, and text on the screen, as well as enough F-bombs to change the rating of the movie playing in the theater next door. But in spite of its gangster characters and shocking violence, it’s actually softer in tone and look than many of its predecessors that it resembles, e.g., Taxi Driver and especially Goodfellas. As primarily a memory piece of the wildly conflicted DeNiro character, Frank Sheeran, there is a through-line of recollection that holds the story together (helping viewers through the 3.5-hour running time), even with all the twists and turns and character introductions. The cinematography by Rodrigo Pietro (Oscar nominations for Brokeback Mountain and Scorsese’s Silence) is reminiscent of Godfather Two’s honeyed look of reminiscence, if not as dark.

The screenplay by Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball, Gangs of New York) manages to structure an easily understandable story that’s all over the map chronologically, and that expertly captures the language of a group of people who hint, obfuscate, and consistently use metaphor as a substitute for directness (see the talk about “painting houses” in the beginning). It’s something of a triumph to cover this much territory with such specificity of character.

Probably the second most talked about aspect of this film is the de-aging process used on the leads (DeNiro and Pesci especially). It’s a bit startling to see younger versions of these stars in the film, but the digital work is essentially invisible, and marks a new technological high for the process. The only actor that this doesn’t work for is Anna Paquin, who looks too old when she plays younger, and then looks her proper age later (a distraction).

The acting is top-notch, and marks the return of actor DeNiro and the physical return of Pesci, who hasn’t had a real presence in a film in 20 years and who steals the film. Pesci has almost always been good, but he scales new heights here; he’s simply great, and plays a quiet but intense character 180 degrees removed from his Oscar-winning role in Goodfellas. DeNiro had almost been lost to us in second-rate projects and in roles that bordered on self-parody. He’s marvelous here, holding the film together and signaling unresolved contradictions that his character is unable to even address, much less work through.

Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa (yes, that Jimmy Hoffa), and as expected, adds to the production cost of the film by chewing the scenery in half his scenes. But when he’s not playing the demonstrative side of Hoffa to grand effect, his scenes are beautifully and realistically played. As a kind of reunion of Scorsese greats, we also see Harvey Keitel, but in a surprisingly minor role. Ray Romano is only a surprise to those that didn’t see his fine work in The Big Sick, and here he plays wildly against type as a lawyer slickly and intelligently defending the worst of the worst.

Unfortunately, the biggest topic of discussion about this film is not about this film at all. It’s about the fact that this is a Netflix production, and is only playing in theaters for three weeks before hitting the streaming service. Apparently no other studio or organization was willing to pay the $160 million production cost, but that hasn’t stopped the sniping and griping that’s gone with wondering what to do with an epic film by one of our greatest directors that couldn’t have been made any other way. (Scorsese’s recent comments about “cinema” and superhero movies have only muddied the waters of critical discussion.)

What should be the number one topic is the film itself. Once the brouhaha about its production and the director’s controversial comments has passed, perhaps more attention can be paid to this marvelous entry into the Scorsese canon. Yes, it’s vintage Scorsese, but it’s also slower Scorsese, softer Scorsese (and these are all relative terms) and much more reflective Scorsese. This is about a man facing the end of his life (Sheeran) by a man nearing the end of his  (Scorsese). Sin, forgiveness, unforgiveness, absolution, repentance, God—these are themes that are there to be explored and examined, and they give this film a depth and resonance not found in his previous work that wasn’t Silence. Sheeran’s struggles with accepting responsibility for his past actions, for example, are painful to watch while exciting to see from a director better known for edge and showing characters with a decided lack of regret. Between his daughter (Paquin) and a sincere and helpful priest, Sheeran and we as viewers are challenged to provide a moral context to what the film shows us that takes the film to heights of complexity that we don’t find in Scorsese’s violent films.

If Scorsese ends his career here, The Irishman is a fitting climax to a brilliant career. But if the subtleties and depths of the film point to a new direction, we can only look forward to what might be next.


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It’s hard to believe that this is the first film on the life of Harriet Tubman, the legendary 19th-century “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. This film should be a remake, or at least a retelling, as this is a historical personage we should all be more familiar with. There are some bumps and some weaknesses in the film, but it should be seen for two main reasons—lead actress Cynthia Erivo’s performance and for dealing with the issue of slavery in America.

Erivo is a young British actress and the winner of the 2016 Tony Award for the Best Actress in a Musical for The Color Purple. She easily makes the move to film with a (I hope) sure-to-be-nominated performance as the tough and determined abolitionist and slave rescuer. The film rests firmly and securely on her shoulders, and there isn’t a false move made. She’s entirely relatable while projecting period accuracy at the same time. This is a model for matching the right actress with the perfect role.

The film itself is solid, and is filled with genuinely touching human moments. Rarely has a film included so many touching and genuinely emotional reunions. The cinematography by John Toll (Academy Awards for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, and currently working on Matrix 4) is on the lovely rather than the gritty side, but it matches the tone of the film. The film could have been grittier in tone and look, but the grit here firmly resides in Erivo’s face and heart. The look doesn’t achieve the beauty that was so controversial in 12 Years a Slave, but is still easy on the eyes.

The music is a problem. It does far too much of the work for the viewer (and listener), and unnecessarily so, seeming not to trust the images and performances to signal meaning. It tells us too quickly and strongly who is nice, who is mean, who is dangerous, and when we are to be worried. It approaches mickeymousing far too often, and we’re robbed of the experience of realizing things on our own.

While the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, there is a fascinating undercurrent to Joe Alwyn’s characterization and performance. He plays the son of Harriet’s slave owner, and the relationship, while not explored enough, adds some needed nuance to the film. Is he just the typical bigoted slave owner, a blond personification of racial cruelty? Or is there more to his obsession with Harriet than we might think at first? The film hints at more, but perhaps since this is a fictional character (sorry…), the film won’t press the possible issues too far. But there is a layer of intriguing questions that make the film richer.

There is also a nod made to unintended consequences in the film. Not everyone wanted to be rescued, and the film offers some understandable reasons why the risks might not be worth it. When Harriet makes some decisions (such as her first escape), she is surprised and often angry by what can happen in her absence. And actions that might have worked well in years past aren’t always smart now, as laws change  and new considerations arise.

One strength of the film is the treatment of Harriet’s connection with God. The film raises the questions of Harriet’s hearing God’s voice as being due to a head injury, and a journal entry to this effect is one of the few moments of humor in the film. But the film doesn’t make fun of her, and demonstrates that whatever she felt she was hearing, it led to one successful “freedom raid” after another. It’s a tightrope walk to show in terms of screenplay and visuals that Harriet was having a spiritual experience, and one that needs to be respected; it could have been played either darkly or comically. Addressing the role of God, and especially the voice of God, in a film is dangerous work. That the film succeeds so handily here is a triumph, and one that will likely be overlooked by many.

The film isn’t always accurate historically. Gideon (Alwyn) is fictional, as is Marie’s character (played beautifully by Janelle Monáe). Time is compressed, and Harriet’s astounding successes after her years as a “slave stealer” are given short shrift. Harriet Tubman’s life deserves a mini-series, which probably won’t happen because this film is a good enough portrayal to last for years.

Most importantly, at least for a student of slavery and the black experience (i.e., me), this is a must-see for nearly all Americans. It’s not the deepest or most thoughtful film of the year, but it’s well-made, and will likely be the only film on this important person for a long while. Americans of the 21st century need to be reminded of the horrors of slavery and racism, and sometimes a film becomes important simply because it addresses or presents issues of importance.

One final note: This was directed by a black woman, Kasi Lemmons. She’s perhaps best known for Eve’s Bayou (1997). Conversation starter: Why does Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, the upcoming Little Women) get so much press for being a female director, and why does Ava DuVernay (Selma) attract similar press for being a black female director, when Lemmons hardly gets attention for a well-made film about a heroic woman set against the greatest abomination in our country’s history? Talk amongst yourselves.

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Judy Garland was the greatest musical performer in American film (and perhaps on the concert stage as well) of the 20th century. It’s likely that no film could do her life—or even a portion of her life–justice. Judy, which focuses on Garland’s year or so before her untimely death in 1969 at the age of 47, is a rather paint-by-numbers, too-soft-by-half account of those years. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s nowhere near what it could be.  It does, however, feature what (at this writing) will most likely be an Oscar-winning performance by Renée Zellweger, playing the comeback queen in a kind of comeback role for the actress (oh, how the Academy loves that combination!) It’s worth seeing the film for that performance alone.

The plot is simple and simplistic: Judy has blown through money and husbands, and she is schlepping her children around without the ability to pay for their care or housing. She gets an offer to sing in London, where she is especially loved, and she leaves her two younger children with her ex (their father Sid Luft) so she can earn enough money to get back to America and retrieve her children back. Along the way there are flashbacks to her time as a child at M-G-M, where her addiction to pills began, and where she was mistreated, overworked, and it is suggested, perhaps sexually abused.

By now that story of her youth is nearly legend, and the film plays it without nuance. The bad people are very bad—men and women—and yet the whole series of flashbacks is played out in lovely colors and surprisingly bring lighting—soft sweet memory cinematography with people acting badly. On paper that sounds intriguing and vaguely Hitchcockian; here it’s just strange and confusing. Of course we’re meant to believe that this early mistreatment is the reason for all of Garland’s later behaviors—with pills, the bottle, and erratic behavior on- and off-stage. There’s very little insight into any other factors, including Garland’s own choices, her difficult family life before films, or the sometimes unusual combination of drive and insecurity one often finds with great artists. There is one fine moment, though, that indicates what the rest of the film could have included. Judy mentions that she asked her close friend and performing partner Mickey Rooney for a date, and he rather cruelly turned her down. Later we see another soft and sweet flashback that has Rooney asking her out, but the draw of the audience’s applause overrides her desire to go out with him, and she turns him down. Oh, to have had more of that!

The softness of the flashbacks bleeds into the adult years, not in terms of visual treatment (thought that is clean, clear, and pretty as well), but in perspective. Garland died of a drug overdose—not a pretty picture. She was petulant, funny, cruel, and often completely unreliable. She drove some fans to ecstasy; she drove managers and business partners to utter distraction. Another Judy film might have ended with her dead on her bathroom floor, with all the failed possibilities of a life only half lived tragically felt. This one ends with Judy triumphant at a concert months before her death—the typical “this is how we really want to remember this person” so popular in films. The film manages to include erratic behavior, the love of the masses, bad marital choices, and drugs, but there is nothing that ties this all together. Even her last husband, the younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), is presented with possibilities (Is he a user? Does he really care for her? Was he really able to help her career?),  but with no guide for the viewer as to what might have been going on. There is a great deal left out of her life, even the short part of her life portrayed here. But there is a valiant attempt to include elements of her life, personality, and difficulties; there just doesn’t seem to be an attempt to bring all these elements together.

Where the script and direction fail, however, Zellweger succeeds. Everything finally culminates in this film not in the story or its treatment, but in Zellweger’s performance. Between the character and the actress playing her, the viewer is distracted away from the rest of the film’s holes and weaknesses, and is drawn into this dominating show. Other than being taller and prettier than Garland, Zellweger IS Garland—a clichéd phrase that in this case isn’t hype. There were times when, in a moment here and there, she looked and acted so much like the real Garland that it was simply uncanny. Zellweger’s mannerisms have been subsumed into this other person; even Zellweger’s tendency to employ her mouth as an acting style works for this portrayal. Her non-singing parts were rich and detailed, and looked deeply acquired and felt. You could feel the deep fatigue of more than four decades of performing and being forced (or feeling like she was being forced) to perform. You could sense the insecurity, the anger, the frustration, and the immaturity that flashed from Garland when pressed by people and circumstance.

As far as the singing and performing parts go, I have to give Zellweger props while still holding my praise in reserve. I am very familiar with Garland’s voice, and I am a singer myself. Zellweger did some easy singing in Chicago, but it was nothing like what was called for here. She clearly has done her homework, both in the singing and performing. The edgy and nearly over-the-top style of later Garland was nailed by Zellweger, and her movements and actions while performing evoke Garland’s television work especially. But I’m sorry—this is Judy Garland we are talking about, the possessor of one of the great voices of all time in popular music. In the less demanding songs (e.g., “The Trolley Song”), Zellweger can handle the notes, and you can hear her occasionally injecting the phrasing and throatiness of Garland’s voice in a way that is exciting and evocative. But in the more demanding songs (e.g., “Come Rain or Come Shine”), Zellweger’s limitations become embarrassingly obvious, and the powerful endings and (relatively) high notes that Garland would wind up and pitch to the back rows are simply beyond Zellweger. There are even moments where, to use a common current phrase, she’s “pitchy,” something Garland never was. Zellweger has to take breaths where Garland never did, and the phrasing suffers.

And then there is the final song.  I suppose a film on Garland has to end with her signature song, but to have it so broken up, and then unfinished, was either a questionable artistic choice of the screenwriter, or a necessary evil due to Zellweger’s inability to bring it to the emotional and musical heights we all remember. For me, my wife sings a much better “Over the Rainbow” than Zellweger manages, and the contrast was uncomfortable.

A comparison with La Vie en Rose can’t be helped. This was 2007’s film about “France’s Judy Garland,” Edith Piaf, who also died (in 1963) at 47. That won Marion Cotillard the Best Actress Oscar, quite deservedly and decidedly unusual for a foreign-language performance. Cotillard lip-synced Piaf’s actual songs, and pulled off perhaps the most convincing lip-synching in film history. Perhaps she took a cue from Garland herself, who when lip-synching her own pre-recorded songs when doing a film, actually sang the songs rather than just moved her mouth. In any event, we got believable performances from Cotillard while hearing Piaf herself. It’s not Zellweger’s fault that she can’t aspire to Garland’s heights; no one could. But the comparison for those us who know Garland’s work makes every musical performance a disappointment to one degree or another.

There has been some criticism that this performance is superficial and unnecessarily over the top. But check out Garland’s film performances after M-G-M (or even in 1947’s The Pirate), and take a look at her interviews. This was a woman who lived an over-the-top life in an over-the-top way. She found drama where that was none, and would constantly reinvent her past for a good story and to keep her persona as victim going strong.

This is going to be, for better or for worse, this generation’s Garland film. I’m not sure if it’s possible outside of a documentary or a limited TV series for even the best production could adequately portray one of the world’s greatest performers. We’re not likely to get a better dramatic performance of the star than we have here. Fortunately, the musical numbers are limited in number and often demand as much acting as singing.. But the Garland as victim trope needs a fresh look at some point. When Garland died, my saddened 16-year-old self mentioned to my mother (a fan of hers) how awful and challenging her life was. Her answer: “It’s not what happens in someone’s life that matters; it’s how they react to it.” Now that’s a Garland film I’d like to see.

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Where to begin? I can’t recommend this to most of my friends, for a myriad of reasons. For those that want to be entertained, the film falls short, delivering a dark shot of confused and depressing nihilism in place of diversion. For film history folks, this is early Scorsese revisited but with less focus and a lot less edge (and therefore, less interesting). For fanboys of the genre, it’s confusing; it’s really more of a simple origin story of a broken psychopath shoehorned awkwardly into the Batman/Joker construct. And for many other in love with the art of film, it’s less than the sum of its parts, even accounting for a captivating performance by one of our great American actors, Joaquin Phoenix.

The film is a smash financially, and it is so full of so many ideas about society, parents, abuse, law and order, etc., etc., etc., that there will be many a conversation about its suggested topics. Since few of those topics are presented with clarity (except that yes, abusing children is bad and leads to problems), the film functions more like an icebreaker question and conversation starter than any kind of definitive artistic expression that must be studied in and of itself.

As a film, it’s grim and muddy and violent and almost never stops moving, with camerawork that seems to reflect its central character’s wandering and increasingly sick mind. That’s a choice, and it joins well with Phoenix’s off-kilter performance. But the film has to back off from that subjective imbalanced movement occasionally for the sake of narrative sense and the viewer’s patience, and those moments of calmer medium-distance perspective contribute to a kind of jerky rhythm to the film that tends to enervate rather than energize it.

One of the topics of conversation for those so interested is that this is a period piece—New York, oops, I mean Gotham, in the 1970s. The movies shown as playing in one scene are both from 1981—Blow Out and Zorro the Gay Blade—but this is the same landscape as Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver with a twist (in more meanings than one) of his 1982 The King of Comedy. The homages or at least references to Taxi Driver are too numerous to mention (see the streets, the taxis, the city, and of course, De Niro). The King of Comedy moments are less important here, but having De Niro be in the “successful” role instead of being the loser adds a certain frisson. Of course there are Dark Knight/Heath Ledger references throughout, some subtle and others deliberately not so.

The Dark Knight gave us a Joker in median res, with little to no explanation of how he got this way, and a more unreliable narrator of his own story is probably impossible to find in all of cinema. That leaves open a world of conjecture and yes, mental chaos, which tends to work better in the Batman stories. Here, the poor guy is just a victim of yes, society to a point (does everyone—adults and children—default to knocking people to the ground and then kicking them relentlessly when they get angry?), but mostly of a deeply mentally disturbed mother who created an environment of abuse. Plus he has no dad, found out that the dad he temporarily thought he had wasn’t, and he’s adopted. Ultimately, Arthur Fleck (worst name ever) is simply the product of his upbringing. Wherever he seems to have some agency, the film suggests that it is actually his free-floating mental illness that causes him to make what his mother might call “poor choices.” It’s not really him, and not really society. The film approaches the substance and development of his twisted character in a similar manner to how Phoenix/Joker stops to dance in the bathroom and elsewhere—fascinating but bewildering.

As committed as JP is to the role—and the commitment is total—this performance won’t overshadow Ledger’s character and work in The Dark Knight for two reasons. One is the rather pedestrian explanation of how Fleck got to be Joker; Ledger’s Joker insists that there is no logical explanation for him. The other reason is context. Joker as the main character is adrift if not connected to Batman, and functions better as a supporting character with Batman front and center. As great as Ledger was, and Phoenix is, the character of the Joker seems more like a spice that enhances the dish than the main ingredient, where it doesn’t quite work, and needs too many other ingredients to try to make a recognizable meal of it. Yes, there is a bit ‘o Batman here, but it doesn’t provide any kind of real balance to the Joker, and is rightly controversial in its inclusion in this story; it seems tacked on to somehow force this film into the DC canon.

Time will tell this film’s worth beyond the central performance and its providing a prosaic explanation for one of the least prosaic characters in comics and the films based on them. The current question is why—beyond brilliant marketing—this film is striking such a chord. Perhaps that will provide the film’s biggest shudder of all.

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Ad Astra

Ad Astra is an intimate emotional journey writ large (as in galaxy large.) It’s a combination of Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 127 Hours, with hints of A River Runs Through It, Road to Perdition, Field of Dreams, and Apocalypse Now. And it gives us the second great performance by Brad Pitt this year.

The plot is relatively simple, and almost slim. IMDB lays it out as well as any other source:  “Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his miss father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the world.” Pitt is Roy McBride, and Tommy Lee Jones plays his father. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are in it, too, and they make an impact when they are on screen. But they are in the film for relatively short periods, and this is basically all Brad all the time.

The film tackles issues of loneliness, identity, fatherhood/sonhood, and isolation. Several questions arise, however, and they are the real story: “What/who are we in this universe?” “ Are we alone in the universe?” “What should the relationship be between fathers and sons, especially if they have a similar calling, or if one of them goes off the rails?” “Can we properly function without intimate human contact?” “How do we handle it when a loved one doesn’t want our help?”

The film is meditative, surprisingly quiet (albeit with a few action scenes), and thoughtful. To describe the various stages of  Roy’s internal journey would be to spoil the film, but it fits nicely with his outward journey. As quiet as the film is, there are notes that are not as subtle as they could be. Roy’s wife is named Eve, which is perhaps too on the nose. (And Liv Tyler, as she often does, plays less of a real character than an archetype, the beautiful woman—now not the beautiful girl—who represents all lovely womanhood, be it human or Elven). Also, Roy’s dispassionate description of his final psychological state is nearly a parody of his earlier descriptions and is a little too explicit.

Director James Gray is no stranger to journeys that are both physical and psychological (The Immigrant, and especially The Lost City of Z). Here he masterfully blends the personal and the intimate played against adventure that takes one across the universe. (It’s rather like Lawrence of Arabia, but with a personal journey that’s more direct and much less complex). Spoiler alert: Roy’s story begins with isolation and ends with the expressed need for connection. But nearly every person Roy “connects” with inhabits their own space, and seems contained and slightly remote and removed. Even at the end of the film, when it is suggested that Roy and Eve might/will reconnect, they each receive their own screen space, and there is no real physical connection.

A film like this lives or dies on its central performance, and Pitt gives what may well be his best performance, one that demonstrates both his strong points while extending his range. Pitt’s journey as an actor is receiving a good deal of thought and talk this year, and it’s true that this role fits where he is right now as few other of his films have. There has often been a certain removed quality to Pitt’s work, as if his energy is centripetal and every move and word is from a point of thoughtful and isolated observation. That works well here, as that is the character’s starting point. But as the film develops, so does the performance, and Roy’s isolation (aversive to touch at times) turns to connectivity (reaching out to Dad). At the same time, Pitt softens, opens, and even comes to tears; it’s a beautiful emotional arc.

To put on a more practical hat for a moment, it’s hard to see how this film will capture its audience after a few weeks. It’s not a rip-roaring space adventure, nor is it a quiet character study. There are a few exciting and tense moments, but this is a father-son film that follows an overly-controlled and isolated man as he deals with finding his father and realizes his need for others. Fortunately, it’s also a vehicle for the star-of-our-times as he gives a performance of richness and depth as he’s never done before. Perhaps that will end up being enough.

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Downton Abbey

Nothing really new here. If you liked/loved the series on TV, you’ll like/love the movie. It’s just a little bigger, a little more grand, a little more lush, and has perhaps one or two too many subplots. To give enough breathing room for all the secondary stories, the film would have to be at least a half hour longer, but the ability of its likely (older) patrons aren’t used to sitting that long—hence the two-hour running time.

The plot itself has been signaled well enough in the trailers (the King and Queen are coming!!), but creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes has a nifty twist prepared to keep things from becoming too predictable. What is predictable, and by predictable here I mean comforting and familiar, are all the characters, their personalities, their interrelationships, and of course the place and time. The well-appointed rooms, the gorgeous costumes, the elegant and moving music—they’re all there. Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is logistical—getting all those actors together long enough to get this film recorded. My guess is that it will never happen again.

And perhaps the near-zero chance of making this happen again is the reason Fellowes felt he had to tie up so many stories; he may well have felt that there was no way many of the stories he started would ever be able to be developed beyond these two hours, and so they had to be presented with some kind of closure or a promise thereof.

All these actors are solid. But a few performances are worthy of note. Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), featured so prominently in the past, is practically invisible here, and she is missed. The happy opposite is the case with Tom (Allen Leech) and of course the indomitable Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Leech’s romantic subplot is rushed and unfulfilling, but he has some lovely moments remembering his wife and explaining how he looks at things now. Smith, whom I admire as both a line reader and actor (see https://film-prof.com/2013/04/15/actors-and-line-readers/), gets her chance to do the former (of course), but also has the chance to show her skills as a serious actor near the end of the film. Perhaps only Smith could have been called upon to wrap things up in such a believable and moving way.

The film’s major misstep (and it’s a significant one) is in handling Mr. Molesly (Kevin Doyle). Doyle was a surprise comic addition to the television show, and his comedy worked best in unexpected small moments. Here he is directed to go over the top from the word go, as if his drunken dance routine highlighted in the TV show were extended to an overly energetic performance throughout the entire film. It doesn’t work, and it makes his final exchange with Miss Baxter feel less authentic than it is written to be.

Some films are nearly critic-proof, and Downton Abbey might be accused of being immune to serious criticism. But not just matching but transcending a well-crafted television series can’t be taken for granted. There were many places where the story could have been overdone or underdone, or a performance might have fallen short, or an approach might have proven to be foolhardy, or the writer or director could have risked taking things in a “daring” new direction. Other than Doyle’s misconceived interpretation, none of these things is true of Downton Abbey. Yes, it’s as comfortable and generally unsurprising, but translating any television show to the big screen successfully, especially with a television director (Michael Engler) at the helm, is no small feat. For those who are looking to keep a show faithful to its TV series while expanding it for the big screen, Downton Abbey may well find itself a future model of how to do it right.

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Whales of August (1987)

Sometimes, seeing two films in a short period of time can lead to fascinating insights and comparisons that would otherwise not have presented themselves. I just saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in a movie theater on a large screen (thank you, RIT student John Dugan for letting me know this was happening) and saw The Whales of August (1987) at home. I don’t think I could have arranged a greater contrast in films if I’d planned it.

Lawrence is considered the greatest epic ever filmed, and I can’t disagree with that. It’s certainly of its time, with music that is far more dominating than in today’s films, with a scope that is beyond most filmmakers, and with a stately pace that rewards the patient but might test the attention span of many modern folks. This may be one of the great “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” films of all time. If someone wants to see a great big fat epic film, this is the one. But try to see it on the largest screen possible. It’s meant to overwhelm, and it did this past week.

I’d last seen Lawrence on the big screen after its restoration in the late ‘80s, and seeing it in 70mm back then was unlike anything I’d ever seen before; I felt as if I could walk out of my seat and into the image. This time it was presented in digital, but the newest restoration was still glorious, and the film presented a master course in cinematography by Freddie Young (Oscars for this, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, but also cinematography for the original Goodbye, Mr. Chips; 49th Parallel; Ivanhoe; Mogambo; Lust for Life; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; and Nicholas and Alexandra, to name a few.) This was likely Young’s and director David’s Lean most beautiful and expressive work before Lean’s becoming self-conscious about it.

This is also the film that many claim to contain the best performance not to win an Oscar, and some consider Peter O’Toole’s work here the best performance by any actor in any film. That’s subjective, of course, but the performance hasn’t aged over the years, and is as enigmatic and confident as ever. Alec Guinness’s performance as an Arab used to bother me, but the great actor (Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai and fame for playing Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in some popular space opera) was made to look the part, and clearly brought his considerable skills to creating a believable character. What surprised me was how over-the-top-yet-missing-the-mark Anthony Quinn was. Of course a Mexican actor playing an Arab was a stretch, but Guinness showed how the lack of background didn’t have to be an impediment to a believable performance. Quinn chewed up all the scenery in sight, and kept popping out of the fabric of the film. But it’s Lean’s and O’Toole’s film, and if the post-intermission (yes, there was an intermission) part of the film doesn’t quite add up to the first half, it’s still a must-see for everyone interested in what film can be. Look around and find out when it’s coming to a movie theater near you, and then don’t let anything get in the way.

The opposite of Lawrence is the delicate, lighter-than-air The Whales of August, which simply floats on the screen until it fairly evanesces by the end credits. It’s known for being the last film of legendary Lillian Gish at the end of her 75-year career in film, as well as Oscar-nominated Ann Sothern. It was also the second-last film of stroke victim Bette Davis, and one of the last films of Vincent Price. It’s a quiet chamber piece, with basically 3.5 characters. Gish and Davis play two sisters, one soft and kind and one edgy and attitudinal (guess which actress plays which). It was Sothern who got the supporting actress Oscar nomination, and she is fine if still held to a rather small part. Gish is lovely and doesn’t miss a beat, ever the consummate professional. She’s nearly lighter than air. Davis, of course, provides the cynicism and holds the drama down to a jaundiced realism before (spoiler alert) she decides that there is more to live for.

Price’s character is interesting, as he brings in the pre-Soviet Russian aristocracy into a New England context, and helps to pull the film out of its possibly too-constricted place and historical moment. His character was originally scheduled to be played by Alec Guinness, who would have connected this film to Lawrence of Arabia and would have added another texture to the film. But Price is surprisingly effective, bringing a soft Continental touch to his character, who has been physically unmoored due to the death of his dear female friend. The dialogue and acting around his attempts to investigate if Gish’s character might be his new dear friend is subtle, polite, and moving.

The film will always be remembered as Gish’s final effort (at age 93), the end of a 75-year film career. But a few other notes of interest add some delightful context to the film. Ann Sothern’s daughter plays her as a young girl, and Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen plays the young Bette Davis in that same short segment in the beginning of the film.

When you want to be rolled over with drama, beauty, sound, and scope, try Lawrence. If you need a quiet, lovely, and soft film experience, join Gish in her final performance. Both films are historic, and ring two very different internal bells.

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