Aurore

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* * * (out of five)

Spoiler alert: This review obliquely references the film’s tonal conclusion.

Pregnancy is a good given circumstance – a good hook – on which to hang a movie. It’s human and relatable, there are going to be emotions involved, and it’s inherently suspenseful. There’s going to be a result, an ending, a climax. Nine months or so is a pretty good length of time for a story. The seasons can change, things can happen. Structurally, a pregnancy is pretty impeccable. Like screenplays, they’re even divided into three acts (okay, trimesters).

Aurore, a bouncy, swift and genial comedy from Blandine Lenoir, cleverly has fun with this inherent dramatic arc by assigning the pregnancy neither to the protagonist, nor the antagonist, but to a supporting character. Aurore, warmly played by Agnès Jaoui (who co-wrote the film with Lenoir and, weirdly for a French film, four others) is the mother of the expectant, but the center of the story. At age fifty, she simply feels too young to be on the verge of  being a grandmother; accepting this inevitable status is her character arc, and the film’s journey.

Unfortunately, this clever construction allows the film to avoid dealing with its actual nemesis, which is menopause. The trials and tribulations of menopause are highlighted, I dare say, in every scene of this 89 minute film, but not dealt with, except comically. Rather, the film uses Aurore’s daughter’s pregnancy to dodge the issue, keep things light, airy and pleasant. The film is about society marginalising women once they hit middle-age, but fear not, it’s all played for laughs, and everything turns out okay.

The mature audience I saw it with laughed with every hot flash and mood swing, many obviously in recognition. They didn’t want their buzz killed and they were completely obliged. I enjoyed the witty dialogue, the warm performances, and the intriguing setting (a city somewhere in South-Western France, by the water, possibly La Rochelle), but, somewhere in the second trimester, I realised the film, like its heroine, was more concerned with being loved than asking questions, and, frankly, it lost me. Like many pregnancies, the beginning was surprising and exciting, but the end was entirely predictable.

Cagney and Lacey (Netflix)

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As the terrifying massive ratings for the recent debut of a new season of Roseanne demonstrate, everything old remains new again. We don’t necessarily need any of these retreads, which also include Will and Grace and Dynasty and upcoming Murphy Brown, but as long as we watch them, we’re going to keep getting them.

Depending, I suppose, on the age, availability and gameness of the original cast members, some of these shows are “revivals” – Roseanne and Will And Grace feature their original casts – while some are “reboots”. Cagney and Lacey, on CBS All-Access in the US and Netflix in the rest of the world, is a mix of the two. The characters are meant to be the same, but they’re played by new actors; admirably, the show bucks most trends by casting new actors who are not only far more established than the original cast members were, but are as old – or older – than the characters themselves would have become.

Helen Mirren is two years younger than Sharon Gless, who originally played Cagney, the blonde, single, career-minded cop partnered with Lacey, played by Tyne Daley in the original and here played by Judi Dench, who, at 83, is eleven years Daley’s senior. It would have been very easy for Netflix to cast two “hot” twenty-somethings, so kudos to them for allowing these two characters to age (and so gracefully). Perhaps we have the astonishing success of Gracie and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, to thank?

The casting of the two Dames is quite a coup; who hasn’t hankered to see them in a vehicle together? Unfortunately, this is pretty much the wrong vehicle. Dench takes to Lacey’s boozy swagger with gusto (if a bit too much Brooklynese) but Mirren, unfortunately, seems all at sea as Cagney. Gless was always the “femme” to Daley’s “butch”, but Mirren seems determined to go another way with her interpretation, presenting a Cagney every bit as grizzled and gutsy as her partner (she also has a much harder time with the accent). Sure, time has passed, and both of the characters have every reason to be hard-bitten, but the similarity of the characters – a fault obviously partially to blame on the script – robs the series (I’ve seen the first four of ten episodes) of one of the original’s most distinct flavours, which was the the difference between the two. Mirren and Dench, as older versions of two distinct women, seem to have grown into one. Or perhaps, the series is saying, all Cagneys become Laceys over time.

All The Money In The World

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Plummer as Getty: excellent.

* * * 1/2

Let’s clear the elephant from the room first. 88 year old Christopher Plummer is fantastic as an 80 year old J. Paul Getty in a way that a 57 year old Kevin Spacey and a ton of make-up simply could not have been. For what it’s worth, I think Plummer is the better actor, too, so there.

Now the film. Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World is a dependable, lavish and thorough telling of a very intriguing true story; if you don’t know the details of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in 1973, and the strange response from his grandfather – the richest man in history (to that point) – they’re all here. That’s also the film’s fatal flaw; in cramming in all the details, Scott occasionally loses the story’s drive. At two hours and twelve minutes, it feels too long, and flabby. David Scarpa’s screenplay is based on the nonfiction book by John Pearson, and Scarpa’s instruction from Scott seems to have been “get it all in”, resulting in narrative details (the minotaur!) that could easily have been cut. I hesitate to use the current critical cliché, but this material, done this way, may have worked better as a work for television – say, a six hour series.

Nevertheless, we have the movie, and despite its woolliness, it’s worth seeing. Plummer is really good. In every way, his Getty Snr. is a huge character in the film (he’s second billed to Michelle Williams, which would accurately reflect their screen time) and his seamless integration makes my head spin (there’s only one shot, in Saudi Arabia, where some digital compositing is visibly obvious). Williams is also excellent, obviously drawing on the available research to offer a portrait of a woman in distress who is not constantly flipping out. Her restraint is admirable; she shows Gail Harris’ vulnerability in subtle moments of physicality, such as removing her shoes. Charlie Plummer – not Christopher’s actual grandson! – is good casting as poor JPG III, and everyone’s artsy heart-throb Romain Duris is terrific as JPG III’s kidnapper Cinquanta.

Unfortunately, Mark Wahlberg seems miscast as ex-CIA man turned JPG head of security Fletcher Chase (don’t forget, that’s a real name). I think Wahlberg is terrific in the right role – usually comedy – but he’s not at all terrific here (and not allowed to be funny). Something is off. It’s a tough role, demanding, perhaps, layers of self-doubt – Chase made some massive mistakes along the way – but Wahlberg only brings one note.

JPG is savaged in the film, to the point that Scott seems personally aggrieved at him. It seems like the old man was a real ass. The audience I was with gasped at some of his miserly comments. All The Money In The World finally works best, not as a true-crime kidnap thriller, but as yet another reminder – always timely, and particularly now, as billionaires buy political capital – that all the money in the world can’t make you happy, and will probably make you a dick.

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Spacey as Getty: ludicrous.

The Last Jedi

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* * * *

Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the most artful film in the whole series. Working with his usual (but new to the franchise) cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and Series Legend sound designer Ben Burtt, he creates images, moments and sequences that have more visual flair and sonic innovation than the other films. In doing so, he creates a slightly more grown-up feel (even, once or twice, bordering on the arthouse), all to the film’s credit. It’s not only wonderful, it’s fresh.

Perhaps the biggest and boldest cinematic innovation Johnson and Yedlin apply here is a simple one: colour, or to be much more specific, red. This could well become known, of the Star Wars movies, as ‘The Red One’ (or perhaps ‘The Crimson One’); the colour’s use is so blatant, so dramatically present, that it cannot go unnoticed, even by the youngest viewer (or the most under-informed cineaste). It informs the entire experience of the film. Johnson and Yedlin deploy it as a stand-in for blood on a salt planet (with a truly chilling, and seemingly very violent, effect, such that you feel they’re ‘getting away’ with something); as the colour of the armour of a squad of elite imperial guards; and, most theatrically, as the colour of the lair of Big Baddie Snoke, where red simply replaces actual walls and the film veers from fantasy movie ‘reality’ into actual abstraction.

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Rian also advances the cinematic language we’ve come to expect from the film’s action sequences. Here, at climactic moments, he will offer us an absence of sound and spectacle, using silence in lieu of an explosion, destruction seen from a distance. Again, it feels more mature, more cerebral; you’ve seen plenty of big bangs, he seems to be saying, but how often have you taken a moment to contemplate their impact? He also makes far more of small individual moments of tension than is common for the franchise; the film’s first big action sequence comes down to the simple pressing of a finger on a button, and it is nail-biting.

All of this makes the film thrilling experientially, and the character stuff works tremendously as well. In particular, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver get to play off each other (whether or not they’re on the same planet) with wit and emotional resonance. Oscar Isaac also makes a strong impression. The actor not making a big impact this time around is John Boyega, whose Finn definitely takes a narrative backseat to Isaac’s Poe. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher offer substantial  appearances, though their actual performances are a little odd.

The story is convoluted and at times confusing, but that felt, to me, by-the-by. I had a great time at this Star Wars; I felt, as an adult, that I was being catered to on a more substantial level than usual, and that was gratifying. I even liked the little fluffy penguins. I just might go see this one again.

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Call Me By Your Name

7

* * * * 1/2

Timothée Chalamet gives a superb, award-deserving performance as a seventeen-year-old “Jewish French Italian American” young man falling in love for the first time in Luca Guadagnino’s sensuous, languid, romantic and beautifully crafted Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet himself is American/French, speaks French fluently, and spent his summers as a boy in France, so his casting here represents a kind of divine providence. He is the right actor in the right role at the right time and he nails it.

He plays Elio, who lives in a gorgeous villa in Lombardia, Italy with his parents and a couple of household staff. Each summer his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hosts a research assistant; this year – 1983 – it is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a brashly confident American scholar. Over the summer, Elio and Oliver fall in love.

This isn’t Brokeback Vineyard. Oliver and Elio are not – at least, on the surface – fumbling, self-hating deniers, and they’re untroubled by any tangible outside dangers, including bigotry. Indeed, they are both cool. Oliver enchants the whole town with his rather astounding physical presence but his cool goes deeper than that; it’s in how he walks, how he wears the subtly brilliant period-specific summer clothing. He’s deeply dorky when he dances ‘80s-style, but that just somehow adds to his cool. Likewise, Chalamet’s Elio starts the film awkwardly but Oliver awakens some inner cool within him, and soon he’s smoking cigarettes as suavely as the older man.

It is incredibly pleasant to spend a couple of hours with characters as unashamedly smart as this. It is rare these days to find English-speaking characters who revel in the pleasures of intellectual discussion, who celebrate each other’s braininess. Languages in this household freely intermingle and people lie down and read to each other; poets and philosophers are quoted and questioned. It feels like a universe away, a better place, and a most wonderful one for these two smart, intriguing people to come together.

The film feels too long for its story, which, while it may contain multitudes of feeling and intimate detail, is essentially a simple one. But it is charming in spades, and, as captured in Chalamet’s performance, an essential addition to the coming-of-age canon. The final shot lodges it there with amazing grace. And we need the time, perhaps, to fully get to know these people. Chalamet’s Elio is the focus of the story and carries the movie, but Hammer’s Oliver is devilishly complicated, layered with nuance and far more vulnerability than first suggested; Hammer plays him perfectly – again, the right role for the right actor at the right time, superbly cast and directed.

This is a film that stays with you. Its mood, its heart and its characters have been tickling my brain since seeing it. It feels nourishing and generous, like a meal that was delicious and has turned out to have ongoing health benefits. It’s briefly altered my perception of the world, reminding me that there is decency out there, somewhere. And I daresay, if I was a gay teenager right now, or even just a teenager, this would be the movie I needed. It may be one of those films that change many thousands of young lives for the better. For many, it will become a favourite, a classic, even a life-saver. It is sublime.

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