Saturday, December 21, 2019

Movie Review: "Marriage Story"

Is there a psychological term for when critics band together to fawn over perfectly forgettable and mediocre movies? Delusional groupthink? Misplaced acclaim? Self deception to ward off disappointment? The latest film to benefit from a phenomenon along these lines is Marriage Story, which received a 95 percent positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and which will probably grab a bunch of Oscar nominations. Why all the acclaim? Perhaps it was the combination of a darling indie director (Noah Baumbach), a promising cast (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a heartbreaking trailer, a this-is-going-to-win-the-Oscar movie poster, and a classic-in-waiting title (Marriage Story) that made it impossible for critics to admit that Marriage Story failed to live up to all of our expectations.

I have a special aversion for movies set in NYC/LA (there are enough of them already!) and that are about well-to-do actors and filmmakers (enough of those, too), so you could say I was being rubbed the wrong way right off the bat. It didn’t help that the characters were also whiny, self absorbed, and unlikable. And let’s not confuse dysfunctional characters who ragefully yell at each other with good drama or dialogue. The acting was just weirdly bad on all fronts. It was as if I was watching a cast of actors “acting,” which is something I don’t expect from a reputable cast and director. But are they even that reputable? I liked Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. The Life Aquatic (which he co-wrote) is one of my favorites. But from what I gather from his filmography (and I should admit I haven’t seen everything), he seems seriously over-admired. The same goes with Adam Driver, who overacted throughout Marriage Story, and who I think gets coveted roles mostly for his unusual face and voice (the same way Benedict Cumberbatch gets roles for his interesting face and name). In the past ten years, Driver has managed to get cast in about 25 films plus a popular HBO series, and I’m just not sure why. What are his memorable performances? What are his iconic movie moments? What has he done to have admired directors (Spike Lee, Spielberg, Jarmusch, J.J. Abrams, Scorsese) cast him in roles that young actors would die for? I just wasn’t buying his relationship with Scarlett’s character, and his overacting in the early Monopoly scene was overlooked in the editing room.

[As an aside, I want to say that “who’s cast in this or that movie” is almost always immaterial to me. The only actor who will make me go out of my way to watch a movie, regardless of what the movie is about, is Daniel Day Lewis. (Directors are a different thing: I’d probably set out to see almost anything that P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, James Cameron, the Coen’s, Kelly Reichardt, or Alfonso CuarĂ³n makes.) The high quality of acting in TV series like Game of Thrones, Easy, and High Maintenance (all of which are dominated by unknown actors) suggests to me that there is no shortage of top-notch talent out there, but that these talented actors can’t get a footing because actors like Driver, for reasons I can’t comprehend, become the darling of Hollywood where he soaks up all the good roles.]

I shouldn’t conclude without saying something positive about the film. I thought the movie succeeded in showing just how wrenching and expensive modern-day divorce is, and how it brings out the worst in everyone. That’s an important story to tell, but it doesn’t feel like a universal story (and Marriage Story is marketed as a movie that will have universal relevance), when it’s about characters who can afford to leap from LA to NYC willy nilly, who randomly win MacArthur Grants, and who prance around in public singing songs as if life was a musical.

Lastly, I didn’t despise the movie. I just can’t keep quiet when critics fawn over mediocrity.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Movie Review: "The Irishman"

I’m okay calling The Irishman a good movie. I won’t roll my eyes if it gets an Oscar nomination. I’m just not sure why the filmmakers went through the trouble of turning the Frank Sheeran-Jimmy Hoffa story into a $159 million, 3.5 hour film that underwent various postponements and that took pains to lure Joe Pesci out of retirement. And for what? The film works as a well-crafted docudrama — a history (and even that’s being challenged) — but there’s not much of a story to it, and when I say “story,” I’m talking about the things that compel us, rivet us, transform, enlighten, and enrich us when we watch a movie. Or that just make us feel. I'm not sure I felt anything. Rather, I saw things. I saw a series of characters who, in the 3.5-hour runtime, didn’t change in any substantial way. I saw a random series of cold-blooded murders of side characters who I could hardly keep track of. (Why Scorsese decided to dramatically document the date of their deaths with text boxes is unclear to me.) I saw a bunch of characters driven almost entirely by their quest for money and power, which are driving forces that make for dull storytelling. I saw a bunch of pointless cameos (Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale) for roles that could have been suitably filled by some newcomer who'd love to be in a Scorsese film. I didn’t see any pathos or emotional character arcs. I’m not sure what the movie had to say, or if it even tried to say anything. The fact that this story is arguably historically insignificant doesn't help things.

The Irishman could have worked as an enlightening second-half-of-the-twentieth-century mafia movie (in which we interestingly get to see how Mafia 2.0 interacts with government, how they carry out assassinations, how their business interests have evolved with a changing world, not to mention the always-fun tough guy codes, the fun subtle tough guy threats, and the fun tough guy beating a grocer nearly to death for nudging his daughter), but Scorsese already did that with Goodfellas and Casino. I wasn’t a fan of Hugo or Silence, but at least Scorsese was trying something different. The Irishman is warmed leftovers that took years and a lot of money to make.

I think of all the movies that could have been, and need to be, made with a $159 million budget. Why not tell the story of John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid? Why not adapt the Native Alaskan Two Old Ladies story into a movie? The English Kinder Scout mass trespass? The Monkey Wrench Gang? A biopic of Thoreau? I love all the old mob movies as much as the next guy, but I think they should go the way of the Western, and go away.