Quick Hit: A blow to the heart for anyone that has one.
Scarlett Johansson (ScarJo) joined elite company this year when she was nominated both for the Best Performance by a Leading Actress and Best Performance by a Supporting Actress. She also maintains a presence in one of the biggest franchises in history, playing Black Widow in the Avengers series. Adam Driver, for his part, found his way into possibly the only other franchise that could dwarf the Avengers, playing Kylo Ren in the Star Wars saga. And yet, they both found themselves as nominated actors in today’s Best Picture nomination, Marriage Story, director/writer Noah Baumbach’s slow burn dramedy about a couple’s marriage disintegrating before our eyes.
On a personal note, those who know me well will note that this is a subject matter that at times was difficult for me, and other times fascinating as well. I, like Charlie (Driver), am a bit of a crier in movies, due to my sheer investment in the story and characters (providing they’re well-written and acted). I found myself tearing up multiple times in the film, and physically reacting in others – shifting forward in my seat, wrenching backwards, and a myriad of others. So is it any surprise when I have such a good grade when I have such a personal connection to the material?
The movie starts almost as if a collection of home movies, accompanied by voice over. First, we have a description of both Charlie and Nicole (ScarJo) in their own words about the other. These are filled with obvious love and affection and a depth of relationship that anyone in a long term relationship will remember. Then, we find out the context of these letters of love – they’re sitting in a mediator’s office prior to their divorce. The letters are to remind them of the reason they got together in the first place, before the mess that is to come. It’s a sweet, fitting tribute to the end of a relationship that perfectly captures the differences in personality that emerge when you share your life with someone, and how having a child changes what you love about your partner as well. Despite its rough beginnings, both Nicole and Charlie seem ready to move on amiably and are more than happy to compromise in order to keep the other happy.
That is, until lawyers get involved. This starts at the behest of a colleague who gives Nicole the card for Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a high-priced lawyer who represents women during the divorce. After some threatening calls from Nora, Charlie gets his own lawyers – first Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who is quick with a joke but also maddening in his continued insistence on things that he says won’t or will occur, and then a high powered lawyer named Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), who charges a 25,000 dollar retainer for his services. This is something that Baumbach continually points to throughout the film – the cost of a divorce, both in monetary value and life change. It’s clear by the end of the movie that rarely does any side truly “win” in a divorce. Even when one side gains things they were asking for, it’s often at the expense of something else. The biggest loser – a point that is mentioned continually – is the child.
This screenplay wouldn’t work without incredible performances by both its leads and its supporting players. ScarJo and Driver are fantastic – giving performances that spread the full performance range – from sadness to anger to overwhelming happiness and love. They sell it, and even give vocal performances courtesy of some well-placed Sondheim. It’s a beautiful performance that is truly carried on their backs. But Dern and Liotta do some heavy lifting as well, as they present the case that the system is the only villain in this story. Nearly everyone has their own chance for an extensive monologue, with Dern’s being one of the most moving in the story, in a bit of a direct shot towards Kramer v. Kramer. Hers consists of the discussion that it’s nearly impossible for a woman in court because she has to show both a consistent motherhood to a child and an ability to work as well, because frequently mothers have their own jobs held against them in court.
Baumbach also shows just how much ammo any marriage can generate into barbs during a court battle. From a small misstep on the stairs to a discussion about a move many years prior, it’s all brought into court as evidence of the other’s inability to be a consistent or responsible parent to their child. It’s a haunting conclusion – many think the courts are there to be fair and just – that the system we support is corrupting us as we feed it’s practictioners.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with the film. It’s nuanced and subtle, brash and bold, colored and monochrome. It covers the spectrum of any relationship, and I’d highly advise everyone to watch it. It’s one of my favorite films from 2019. I’m going to give it an “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
Quick Hit: Tarantino’s penultimate film is a one that is clearly all his own.
Quentin Tarantino has a variety of films, some of which we’ve covered on this site. He is one of the most vocal advocates of the “hang out” film; which is a film where the plot becomes decentralized to the idea of simply watching interesting characters be interesting. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood serves as Tarantino’s love tribute to these types of films, along with also serving as an example of exactly why he can be such a wonderful and frustrating filmmaker. These factors, along with the fact that he has stated he wants to finish as a director of 10 films (this being his ninth), combine with the feeling that this may be one of his most personal films.
As stated previously, there is an extremely loose interpretation of the word “plot” that occurs throughout the film. The year is 1969, and it starts by introducing us to our leads separately – we first meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he is on the end of his career as a television star. He is told by an agent (Al Pacino – the second time he’s appeared in the Best Picture nominations this year) that he needs to go to Rome to keep his star shining and appear in those famous “spaghetti westerns” of the late 60s and early 70s. Rick is less than thrilled about the idea, particularly since it means departing with his stunt man of many years, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). We also follow the story of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising actress that married Roman Polanski and… we’ll get to what she’s most known for in a minute.
The layout of the film is a bit confusing, as we frequently follow our characters into actual performances from movies and television, flashback in time, and jump to characters that essentially have no interaction together. This creates some really memorable scenes – like Cliff fighting Bruce Lee, but it also gives the film a bit of a disjointed feel. But it allows each character a moment to shine alone. DiCaprio gets to show both an expanded ego and a huge vulnerability in regards to his performances. His best scene involves a conversation with a young actress as he contemplates his own impending irrelevance. Pitt has a bunch of his own scenes that are frequently violent or just have a feeling of danger. I think my favorite was when he ends up at a former movie set that is now being housed by a complex of hippies. There is a drastic tension that drips from every moment in the scene that is largely carried by Pitt’s performance.
A lot was made while the movie was on the festival circuit of Robbie’s role in the film. She, in truth, has very few speaking parts, and has a drastically reduced screen time compared to the rest of the characters. However, she has one of the most emotional scenes in the movie, as we get to watch her enjoy the film that she stares in. These moments, as she relishes in the faint praise from the laughter she gains, are incredibly moving in their own way, and it makes later actions in the movie that much more heart-wrenching.
That’s because what Sharon Tate (told you I’d come back to it) is most famous for is being murdered by Charles Manson followers. Tarantino always seems to return to scenes that feature extreme violence, and he lights the fuse that has slowly been burning throughout the movie in the last act – giving a conclusion that will cause more than a few winces from viewers. It’s filmed in his normal up-close and personal style, and even reflects on moments from previous portions of the movie that originally seemed like throw-away jokes.
But probably what is best about the film is how it immediately gives you the feeling that you have been transported to the year 1969. From the music, which gives you familiar songs sung by different artists, to the allusions to cinematic history sprinkled throughout with props and backgrounds, it really does feel like you’re back in that time period. It is a terrific piece of work that slides you effortlessly into the past, made all the more poignant when viewed through the lens that Tarantino uses to bring a grittiness and a bright yellow feeling to his scenes. It’s a terrific film, but I don’t know if I can rank it among his best. I prefer the feeling of a Django or an Inglorious Basterds, which have more concrete plots to follow.
So, without further commentary necessary, I’m going to give this one a “B+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
Quick Hit: A story about the reflections of age and your own perspective on your actions.
Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a deep reflection on two subjects that he has tackled throughout his entire career. The first is the mob, which he states he drew on his own personal experience as a child, and the second is a much deeper reflection of religion and our own actions. The latter part of his career seems to have pushed more into this second realm, but he uses The Irishman, which is currently available for streaming on Netflix, to build the two into a cohesive theme. What would happen if an aged mobster was reflecting on his own actions at the end of his life? What would he think of himself?
Scorsese pushes the envelope in this film (could it be his last?) in a number of ways. The first is his use of De-Aging technology to allow his main acting ensemble to play themselves throughout the movie in a story that spans 50 years. The second is the running time, which is an incredible 209 minutes. Both have their drawbacks and their benefits, but I think that overall, both end up serving as an overall benefits to the story. For one, after you get past the initial shock, the de-aging technology doesn’t really hurt the story, but it does allow you to follow some terrific actors through the whole story, without having to work to remember who is who in what scene. Secondly, the running time allows the story to ebb and flow, just as if you were really sitting with an elderly gentleman who was telling you a story. There’s a lot of tangents to this film, some of which you may find out were critical to the story, some that weren’t. But all of them are enjoyable and included because Frank thought they were important to pass along.
Let’s talk about the story overall. Boiled down to its barest elements, the story is of a young man named Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), who finds himself in the good graces of an Italian mob family run by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and eventually its dealings with Union Boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). This largely has to deal with the fact that Frank finds himself in the right places at the right times, but it also has to do with the fact that he is no nonsense and doesn’t have an issue with following orders. This is also at the expense of his family life (more on this in a minute) and frequently puts him into a position where he has different bosses all giving him orders, some of which may be conflicting. This gives DeNiro, who has fallen into a phase in his career where he has been called “sleepy” or “washed up”, the chance to give a cold nonchalance that perfectly fits the role of Frank. He isn’t a dumb character, but he plays the fool more than once, and allows other characters to think he’s dumb. It’s a brilliant move for a mobster, when so much of the game is what others think of you.
The acting really is tremendous throughout the film, with Pesci giving possibly my favorite performance of his career. Russell is extremely subdued throughout the film, which comes in direct contrast to what he frequently was in Scorsese’s other films. It’s this quiet intelligence, when coupled with Frank’s seeming dimness, that makes the two such a formidable pair. Pacino also excels as Hoffa, who was a larger than life character and perfectly fits Pacino’s skills. There’s also some stand out acting from some women that get shafted to the sides of the story, including from Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter.
I think this is where the emotion of the story comes from. One of the first reactions that we see from Frank regarding his family is when he leaves his wife for a waitress, and doesn’t seem at all concerned about it. It’s this coldness that permeates his relationship with his daughters, particularly Peggy. Peggy has one of her first scenes as her father beats a man senseless in front of her, because of his treatment of her. It’s scenes like this that set the feelings moving, particularly when you see how the relationship between Hoffa and Peggy is one of love and trust. She respects what Jimmy does, but she despises her own father’s role in the community as an enforcer.
Throughout the film, I was pretty much entranced. Is it a bit too long? Maybe. But this long form storytelling is something that is not seen enough outside of television. I’m giving this one an “A-“.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"