Marriage Story (2019)

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Man. This is good stuff. Marriage Story from Netflix. Beautiful Baumbach—balanced and sensitive. Not written written, but natural and genuine. And perfectly cast (by Douglas Aibel and Francine Maisler). Not just the leads, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, each never better, but the supporting players: her mom (Airplane!’s Julie Haggerty), her cut-throat lawyer (Laura Dern, who took home the “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” Academy Award for her fine contributions here), his attorneys (Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, showing us why they’re still in the game), Merritt Wever (Run, Unbelievable) serving papers, adorably, in a scene-stealer of a scene. Even the (typically bratty American) kid—Azhy Robertson—is decent. And the structure of the film, in all its beauti-foolishness, so well crafted: what I love about Nicole/Charlie. ScarJo’s long take at her shrink’s, those two scenes late in the film that literally sing to us. This is Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) at the very top of his game, guns a’blazing, coaxing the most passionate and demanding best out of his performers. (Oddly, I could not get into his While We’re Young. Tried it twice. Now that film was written written—who needs it?) Marriage Story concisely showcases the disillusionment, the anger, even the humor of a divorce-in-progress. It’s all perfectly drawn and managed and manipulated, not showy or forced. Sure: big personalities emoting and shouting up a storm, teacup-like, it could well have been—Kramer vs. Kramer 2—but Baumbach doesn’t go there. Heck, voices don’t even get raised until the film’s mid-section. Watching Marriage Story can make you feel good about yourself, feel happy. Happy that your marriage isn’t like this, won’t end up like this if you have any say in the matter. It’s not always an easy watch, but it’s oh so easy to admire.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

 

Military Wives (2019)

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Now here’s a recipe for guaranteed disaster: take a fabulous actress (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient) and a talented comedian (Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe), saddle them with one of those “uplifting,” chiefly Brit., based-on-a-true-story scripts (like Brassed Off! or Calendar Girls or the upcoming Dream Horse with Toni Collette), and entrust the whole enchilada to the director of The Full Monty. The execrable and patently inedible result? Military Wives. Actually, I forgot some key ingredients: mix-in some tired stereotypes, a tone-deaf musical score (thanks for nada, Lorne Balfe), and, last but not least, a shameless plug for our boys in camo (bludgeon this last element with a sledgehammer overnight to ensure that all traces of nuance and subtlety have been removed). Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard’s script—military wives form a feel-good choir to boost on-base morale while their spouses are away fighting the Taliban—goes where every Waking Ned Divine-inspired script has gone before. Without exception. Military Wives is painful and beyond predictable. Didn’t Kristin and Sharon glance at this thing at least once and say, “Whhhhat? This is a bit… obvious, isn’t it? Couldn’t we, maybe, work on the humor a little?” My Mum and Anglophiles, the same ones who loved Saving Grace and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Enchanting April (or anything starring Joan Plowright for that matter), will love this one. Others will be well excused for going AWOL.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

 

Judy & Punch (2019)

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That’s the way to do it!”
     In Mirrah Foulkes’s subversively feminist Judy & Punch, the wife beating, baby bashing, hangman hanging protagonist of the classic children’s seaside entertainment finally gets his comeuppance.
     And it’s been a long time coming: the Punch and Judy show originated during England’s Restoration Period in the mid-1660s… although the character of Mr. Punch dates back even further, to the 16th Century Neapolitan stock figure of Pulcinella. More recently, multiple borough councils in the U.K. have considered banning Punch and Judy shows on the basis that they condone domestic violence. The archive footage under Judy & Punch’s closing credits would refute the counter argument that kids love the violent puppet show: the supposed fans look positively traumatized.
     The theme of domestic violence (with a twist!) continues in Foulkes’s film, which stars “Ms.” Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) as Judy and Australian actor “Mr.” Damon Herriman as her ambitious, alcoholic husband. Puppeteers both, our titular talents bring an anarchic and socially irresponsible energy to their marionette performances, warmly welcomed by a bawdy bar crowd.
     While entrusted with the care of their baby for a fleeting hour, the booze gets the better of our red-nosed punchman and tragedy strikes. And when Judy returns home and confronts her mildly-distraught husband, tragedy strikes again. Set in the fictitious town of Seaside (“Somewhere in the Country-side,” we’re told, and “No-where near the Sea”), the film is a dark, droll, and daring upending of the Punch and Judy zeitgeist.
     First-time feature director Foulkes—she appeared in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom (2010) and drew accolades for her 2012 short Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke—enriches the film with a solid sense of style, eliciting strong performances from her two leads in the process. The score, by François Tétaz, is suitably percussive, accented by Wiccan-styled chanting, and the production design (Josephine Ford) is impressive. Also of note is Stefan Duscio’s photography, a dense and foggy affair, often candlelit, highlighting the film’s recurring ruby reds and rouges.
     It’s not all fun and games, of course, but the stick-wielding and “foul-tempered, anti-authoritarian misogynist” has long deserved his day in court. And, with Judy & Punch, the swazzle-voiced miscreant’s desserts are irrevocably juicy, and just.
     On the strength of this bloody debut, Foulkes would appear to be a talent to watch.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

She’s Allergic to Cats (2016)

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If the term “anal gland” makes you bristle with revulsion, then Michael Reich’s offbeat horror-comedy-romance She’s Allergic to Cats is probably not for you. Lovers of slick Hollywood fare might also be put off by the experimental nature of the film, all handheld and jittery and underlit, with a propensity for showing us in close-up things we’d rather not see, even in long-shot. In the film, Mike Pinkney plays an aspiring videographer named Mike Pinkney—genius!—who’s described as a “giant, sad, dirty man-baby” (by his best friend). Mike is currently slumming as a dog groomer in order to pay the rent. One expects that his rent isn’t much given his rat-infested apartment; they like to nibble on his bananas. The opening scene, replete with slo-mo soapsuds and dirty dialogue—“Yes! Yes! Fantastic hand control… slowly and sensually, like that… Yes! Yes!”—might make you think you’ve stumbled into some hardcore fetish flick by mistake. You haven’t. Anyway, Mike’s long-held dream is to produce an all-cat version of Carrie (the Brian De Palma adaptation of Stephen King from 1976, not the William Wyler adaptation of Theodore Dreiser from 1952), but his agent isn’t convinced the project has any legs. Then one fine day Mike meets the luminous Cora, played by Sonja Kinski (daughter of Nastassja, granddaughter of Klaus), and romance blooms large… and weird. Very weird. Fuzzball psychedelia coupled with VHS-quality visual effects (courtesy our mousy lead; Pinkney also produces) dominate this film school dropout styled catharsis, which is just now debuting on VOD (it was made four years ago). ‘Cats is definitely an acquired taste and, some 24 hours after watching Reich’s semi-autobiographical fantasy, I’m still finding it a wee bit gristly.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

 

Images (1972)

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In Robert Altman’s Images, Susannah York plays a woman named Cathryn who’s married to a man named Hugh (René Auberjonois). Marcel Bozzuffi plays Cathryn’s former lover, René, and Hugh Millais plays Marcel, a friend of the family. Rounding out the film’s central quintet is Marcel’s daughter, Susannah, played by Cathryn Harrison. And so we come full circle: five characters, each one bearing the name of the actor who doesn’t play them. Considerably less thinking, apparently, went into the film’s storyline, an overwrought character study dealing with schizophrenia, paranoia, grand designs and underwhelming dream theatrics. Said study features lots of shock zooms, an utterly unhinged score (courtesy John Williams; it was nominated for an Oscar), and an aggravating telephone that rings off the hook, at least during the film’s opening fifteen minutes. It has that brash, British-sounding ring… Images was shot in Ireland by cinematographer par excellence Vilmos Zsigmond. The film is crammed and then some with other jangling, dangling objects—metallic wind chimes and glassy sun catchers and crystal car hangings draped from rear view mirrors. It’s a pretty noisy affair all told; Stomu Yamash’ta is credited with “Sounds” early on (a better title for the film, perhaps?). But for all its deliberately-crafted sonic motifs and mad mise en scène, Images—a genre departure for Altman even at this early stage of his career—doesn’t amount to much. It’s a jumble of psychological hyperbole despite Susannah (York) winning the Best Actress award at Cannes that year, no doubt for giving the thing her all.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

Hard to Be a God (2013)

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Trudge, sludge, murk, mire, for three generous arthouse hours. It’s true: Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God goes where few cinematic visions have gone before, or are likely to again. This unique Russian film professes to be a science-fiction parable (based, as it is, on a sci-fi novel by the brothers Strugatsky, whose book Roadside Picnic was the seed for Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker), but it feels more like Jabberwocky’s eastern bloc cousin than any trek through some shiny star system, the mucky, muddy parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail scrutinized, lionized, and revitalized to the Иth degree—call it the Knights Who Say “Nyet!” After a voiced-over preamble we’re quickly plunged, rough and tumble, into the diasporic drudgery: a distant planet, similar to our own but one stubbornly stuck in the Middle Ages, is visited by traveler Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik), posing as a divine dignitary named Don Rumata. His mission: to help the Kingdom of Arkanar’s societal advancement without direct political or cultural intervention. German obsessed over Hard to Be a God for the last 15 years of his life, never quite applying its finishing touches (he died in 2013). The film was completed by his wife and son and premiered at the Rome Film Festival in November of that year to almost universal acclaim (the Russian critics, however, were mixed). There’s something oddly compelling about the single-mindedness of German’s phantasmagoria; Hard to Be a God never feels quite as long as it might (unlike, say, parts of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, another dirt-ridden dreamscape that unfolds at a pace a snail might consider leisurely). That’s not to say its 177 minutes exactly fly by, for they don’t. Hard to Be a God is an immersive cinematic experience like no other, a massive, messy slog through fundament—the unaltered, natural features of a world’s surface—measureless (as per Coleridge) to man.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Just Mercy (2019)

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Destin Daniel Cretton’s screen adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption is a sobering, by-the-books affair that never quite reaches the heights of greatness to which it aspires. Cretton’s 2013 film Short Term 12, which he wrote and directed, was quiet and small and powerful, and introduced us to Lakeith Stanfield (FX’s Atlanta). Just Mercy doesn’t have the same subtlety despite deft turns from its hard-working and well-cast cast—Michael B. Jordan (as public interest lawyer Stevenson himself), Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson, and (most notably) Jamie Foxx. SAG nominee Foxx is sublime as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, the real-life pulpwood worker turned death row inmate whose murder case young defense attorney Stevenson takes on after graduating Harvard Law and relocating to Alabama. Together with local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson, with a convincing drawl) they form the Equal Justice Initiative with the express goal of providing legal representation to prisoners on death row. Their clients, marginalized and abandoned, are often falsely accused and always poorly represented. Just Mercy is a powerful true story of one man’s dogged dedication to The Truth in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds—overt racism, Southern-style hostility, and a broken judicial system bent on ignoring the little, pertinent things in a case, like facts and evidence. This injustice is given proper prominence in the film despite the director’s predictable approach to the material. What’s on trial in Just Mercy is important, even if the overlong and, at times, overly-earnest film itself turns out to be less so.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Hustlers (2019)

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Everything about Hustlers feels like a hustle. It’s billed as a heist movie, but it’s really a bad stripper movie, since the “heist” part simply involves our heroes defrauding fat cat Wall Street types—first they drug them, then they max out their credit cards! It’s hardly Rififi. You might also expect to see a lot of Cardi B and Lizzo in the film, since their names are way up there on the marquee alongside those of Jennifer Lopez and Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu, but they’re barely in it (a couple of scenes at best). OK, so what about J-Lo’s much touted Oscar-worthy performance? She’s good, no question about that—and I don’t simply mean in comparison to her co-stars (Wu is awkward and Julia Stiles, who plays the journalist who broke the New York magazine story on which the film is based, even stiffer). But worthy of an Academy Award nomination? I think not. And said Academy thought not too. What about “ferociously funny” (Rolling Stone) then? I suppose that depends on whether you find sad, pathetic, and depressing funny. Hustlers is extremely difficult to watch, most notably during the uncomfortable strip club scenes. But perhaps the ultimate hustle is writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s attempts to get us to celebrate the sisterhood’s questionable morality, as they steal from those who have essentially stolen from them. If I want a nice fleece I’ll go to L.L. Bean thank you very much.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Little Women (2019)

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Taking her lead, no doubt, from that young whippersnapper Orson Welles, writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) has wisely waited until her second feature to tackle the classics (no accusations of hubris here if you please!). With Welles it was The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the decline of a wealthy Midwestern family. Gerwig has opted for another family-focused drama dealing with changing fortunes, Louisa May Alcott’s revered Little Women.
     Gerwig’s take on the popular, 1860s down-home adventures of the March sisters—dutiful Meg (Emma Watson), willful Jo (Saoirse Ronan), gentle Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and artistic Amy (Florence Pugh)—is faithful to Alcott’s vision, yes, but it’s also fresh and full of flavor. Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) is cast as the girls’ handsome neighbor, Laurie (Chris Cooper plays his father with facial hair aplenty), with Laura Dern excellent as Marmee and a low-key Meryl Streep serviceable as the capricious Aunt March.
     Little Women (Gerwig’s film version) flip-flops between the girls’ teen years and young adulthood, a to-and-fro shift of seven years. This proves hard work in the early stages, since little effort is made to age our protagonists. Chalamet, for example, looks identical from one time period to the next, and the only notable change in the sisters is the style—or length—of their hair. But Gerwig, the headliner of such ferocious indies as Maggie’s Plan, Frances Ha, and Damsels in Distress among others, creates such a comforting, easygoing mood, and her performers forge such indelible personas, that this narrative structure becomes less distracting as the film progresses.
     Especially effective in Little Women are the familial scenes from seven years ago in which these formidable young women explore and enjoy their artistic passions, share domestic intimacies, and celebrate the bonds of family. Gerwig supports all this on the production end with some subtle stylings—overlapping dialogue (successfully), a little slo-mo (less so), etc. Nicely blending everything together is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous photography and it’s exactly that: sumptuous.
     Another thing’s for sure: the giddy gaggle that is the mad March clan are an easy lot to love. Both Ronan and Pugh (the latter from last midsummer’s Midsommar) received Academy Award nominations for their fine work in the film; Little Women also picked up Oscar nods for Best Picture, Score (Alexandre Desplat), Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran), and Adapted Screenplay. The last of these Gerwig had better win, if there’s any justice, since she was criminally overlooked in the Best Director category, as were many extraordinary filmmakers and performers, apparently for not being white-male enough—I’ll be skipping the awards ceremony this year.
     But back to Gerwig. It takes a lot of guts (and canny confidence?) to adapt a beloved classic for your sophomore directing effort, especially one that has seen so many successful variants on both the big and small screens over the years (all the way back to 1917 it would appear). Fans of Little Women should not be concerned, however. Gerwig and her fine cast and crew have made a timeless tale even more timely.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

All is Bright (2013)

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“Get over here and smell some memories.”
     Phil Morrison doesn’t make many movies. His last one, 2005’s Junebug (which was also his first one), was a quirky, oddball affair that featured a breakout performance by Amy Adams. That little indie was very well-received, so it seems odd that writer-director Morrison should have waited a full eight years to deliver up All is Bright (which appears to have started out life called Almost Christmas).
     The film is almost as quirky as Junebug but with fewer of its obvious charms. This time around, the enjoyment is in watching its stars Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Sally Hawkins interact. All is Bright is another downbeat ode to humanity, and once again Morrison delivers.
     Giamatti stars as Dennis, recently paroled from a Quebec prison after serving four years for breaking and entering. Upon his release, he slogs home on foot only to find that his estranged wife Therese and daughter Michi have moved on—Therese has actually told her daughter that Dennis is dead. And, to add insult to insult to injury, Therese has shacked up with Dennis’s ex-partner in crime, Rene (Rudd), who plans to marry her. Despite his “death,” Dennis wants to do right by his daughter regardless, buy her a Christmas present at least, but when he consults his parole officer about a job, he’s met with a discouraging “Good luck. Terrible economy.”
     Vowing to go straight, but struggling every step of the way, Dennis bullies Rene into letting him tag along on a gig selling Christmas trees in New York City. Hawkins is on hand as a quirky Russian housekeeper to a pair of rich dentists we never see (the star of The Shape of Water seems to be having a lot of fun with the funny accent). Surprisingly (or not), Olga takes a shine to the woebegone and sticky-fingered Dennis.
     Nothing much happens in All is Bright; Dennis and Rene bicker and fight and bicker some more, with Melissa James Gibson’s tight script giving Giamatti and Rudd consistent opportunities to shine. The humor is downplayed—All is Bright is not the rollicking holiday comedy the trailer would have you believe—but our two leads are such compelling character actors I could watch them for days.
     Yes, even selling Christmas trees on a street corner in Brooklyn when it’s five below.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com