Marriage Story Review

*****

Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece, a tragicomedy of human relationships that gets everything right. Anchored by pitch perfect performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this forensic study of a certain kind of divorce elegantly, faultlessly rides the bittersweet path: every scene, and practically every moment, is simultaneously deeply sad and very funny. That’s not just skilled filmmaking, it’s a kind of alchemy.

The stakes are high but accessible: there is a child, Henry, who is about six years old; the splitting couple each have work on either side of the United States (he in NYC, she in LA); both want Henry to live on their coast. Without money and property being foregrounded, the story remains deeply human and humane: Baumbach shows deep empathic compassion for both his leads, and for us as an audience. We are not forced to pick sides. Their professional world – of the grant-subsidised NYC theatre and uncertainties but big bucks of series TV – is rarefied and simply rare, but Baumbach’s script and direction is so incredibly specific, so full of rich and precisely observed detail, that the whole is entirely relatable; that old adage, find the universal in the specific, is entirely and successfully at play here.

If there is a villain, it’s lawyers and a legal system that reflects the misnomer of the “United” States: California and New York have rival systems, and god forbid you break up in both of them simultaneously.

The deep bench of supporting actors do superb work: Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as the attorneys, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Johansson’s family, Wallace Shawn as a workmate and Azhy Robertson as Henry. Driver and Johansson deliver career-bests and will both be nominated for Oscars. Driver may win.

This may be the best film of 2019. It’s right up there. Unmissable.

Free Solo

* * * *

The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Free Solo, now still in some Australian cinemas while also available on Foxtel, charts the first “free solo” – rope-free – climb of the El Capitan cliff face in Yosemite National Park, California, by Alex Honnold, in 2017. While this feat is mind-boggling, extraordinary, almost inconceivable, and deserves a full-bodied documentation, the film is about a lot more. Covering three main strands – the climb, the filming of the climb, and Alex’s first romantic relationship of any true depth – it examines heroism, fear, obsession, the culpability of filming dangerous events, what it takes to love a reckless adventurer who may die “by the sword” on any given Wednesday, and the complex emotional makeup of climbers and in particular, free solo climbers, who live so far outside the mainstream that “free solo” describes their lifestyle as much as their sport.

Is it a spoiler to say Alex survives? I knew he did – I saw him on the Oscar stage with the filmmakers! – but that didn’t stop me feeling nauseous with anxiety as I watched him on his epic climb. Your brain knows he makes it, but your organs are in revolt. Rarely have I been so relieved to see an ending I knew was coming all along. His achievement is majestic, and so is this movie, which avoids any form of overt button-pushing. Like Alex himself, Free Solo is straightforward, honest, humble and confident, with a grip of steel.

Oscars 2019: Thoughts and Wild Predictions

CJ Johnson and Danielle McGrane look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year of self-fouls, own goals and other idiotic mis-steps in anticipation of a train-wreck 2019 Oscars. In addition, they step outside of the boring conventional wisdom predictions for this year’s Oscars, and instead, take a few big swings. Don’t bet on these long shots!

 

 

Cold War

* * * *

A grand romantic drama, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War won the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. There are many movies to get through at Cannes, and Pawlikowski’s superbly crafted film clocks in at only eighty-eight minutes, covering fifteen years and four nations. It’s a lot of movie, and represents tremendous value if your time is tight.

Should you be lucky enough to have oodles of time up your sleeve, Cold War’s brevity might count against it. It’s so good, and so engaging, that you feel a little cheated when it ends. It’s the kind of sweeping European love story that in the past has sustained epic cinema, and Pawlikowski’s decisions to keep it so tight – he also constrains the image, shooting in the boxy “Academy Ratio” and in black and white – seem like a defiant, almost petulant, flight of fancy. Obviously not a cheap production, Pawlikowski seems determined to not put all the money on the screen.

But that’s his aesthetic, and we should be grateful for it. Anyone can shoot a movie in black and white, or in Academy Ratio, but not everyone will do so with such purpose and rigor. He restrained himself similarly with his last film, Ida (2014), and the two films complement each other in other ways. They’re both concerned with post-war Europe, with devotion, with sacrifice, and, here especially, with love. Ida was austere, whereas Cold War is lush and highly populated, but the sharp contrast of the black and white cinematography – Lukasz Zal shot both films – keep the vibe forever wintry, the mood ever melancholy, like a meal for one in a quiet Paris bistro at twilight on Christmas Eve.

Cold War’s love story, of two musicians destined to continually be drawn together and pulled apart by the Iron Curtain and their own internal conflicts, is such a good one – such a blatantly effective story – that it verges on the preposterous. It’s not. It’s based on Pawlikowski’s own parents, and that tips it over into the miraculous. One of the films of the year.

The Favourite

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* * * *

Here’s what The Favourite is not: it is not two hours of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz burping, spewing, pissing and farting while covered in sores, leeches, scabs and lesions. It isn’t ribald, outrageous or scatalogical. And it isn’t riddled with deliberate anachronisms; comparisons to Marie Antoinette are misguided.

Rather, let’s pitch it thus: Barry Lyndon meets All About Eve. Yorgos Lanthimos has absolutely and deliberately based his aesthetic for this compelling, intriguing and extremely funny film upon the former (just as he absolutely channelled The Shining for his last film The Killing of a Sacred Deer) while the latter, at least to my mind, informs the plot.

Emma Stone plays a young fallen woman, Abigail, who arrives, by luck of a minor family relationship, at the Court of Queen Anne. Given a job in the kitchen, she quickly figures out that the path to power (the Queen, played by Colman) requires the displacement of her best friend, Lady Sarah (Weisz). While the Court is involved with war with France, Abigail and Sarah wage war with each other for the Queen’s affection.

The dialogue is supremely witty, the design glorious, and the acting sublime. Colman, despite having such a distinctive look and vocal quality, is utterly convincing as every character she plays, and her Anne is one of her finest creations. This Queen is complicated, contradictory, confounding: childish at times, wracked with gout and sadness, she seems utterly malleable, yet the question of just how much she is aware of the intrigue around her is one of the film’s most compelling tensions. Colman owns the role; it’s a triumph for her.

Weisz and Stone play off each other (and Colman) beautifully; they are so dissimilar in every way – Weisz mature, court-savvy, restrained yet savage when necessary, Stone young, naïve (initially), and possessed of nothing but guile – but always on the same artistic page. Both Sarah and Abigail are fascinating, multi-faceted women; there is much more to both of them than might initially seem, and their actions, and our sympathies, move in surprising and disconcerting directions.

Lanthimos stages all this with a complex palette of tone and style; while the film is undeniably funny, he imbues it with levels of sadness, tragedy and horror. In particular, his use of an astonishingly wide lens, big fluid camera movement and multiple whip-pans complements his use of a musical palette steeped both in classicism and the kind of monotonous plunking that made Killing of a Sacred Deer so unnerving. These courtiers may all be playing a game, but the consequences are bloody serious.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

* * *

Melancholic, indeed dour, with a colour palette of (too much) brown and grey, Marielle Heller’s real-life tale of small(ish) time literary fraud is resolutely one-note, as is Melissa McCarthy’s central performance as Lee Israel, a biographical author who, jobless and desperate in early-90s Manhattan, began a small(ish) life of literary crime. Luckily, the film has a few joltingly interesting twists and turns, and Richard E. Grant, who is, has been and always will be joltingly interesting.

Heller’s direction is uninspired. She uses four montage sequences, each of which could have been replaced with a single, inventive scene. Voice-over narration has often been given a critical cold shoulder, but surely montage sequences are cinema’s ultimate lazy storytelling device. Here, they may as well signify potential toilet breaks.

But the story, small as it is, is intriguing, and Grant, big as he is, is super watchable. He’s playing a very to-type role – sad and flamboyant – but that’s his stock in trade and he owns it. Also, the period set design – Manhattan in winter – is superb; the story evolves mostly in pubs, bookstores, libraries and antique shops, and all ring both true and poetically evocative. I lived in Manhattan then, and I’ve been in those places, with their cramped, wooden, dusty romance. That spirit is present, and helps the film stay alive amidst its strident sadness.

In The Fade

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* * * 1/2

Like last year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Germany’s Foreign Language Film Oscars entry – and winner of that category at the Golden Globes – is about a woman seeking justice for a devastating crime against her family. It differs substantially in tone; Three Billboards is, essentially, a black comedy, while In The Fade has not a single deliberate (nor unintended) moment of humour. It also differs in impact: Three Billboards left me unmoved, but In The Fade, by focusing intensely on the protagonist’s grief before moving on to her anger and ultimately her quest, deals in honest emotion.

It is divided neatly in three acts, given chapters: The Family, Justice, and The Sea. The first act is a drama of grief, the second a drama of the courtroom, the third a thriller. This rigid construction is deeply apparent throughout the film; it is rigorous, taut and, despite its intense subject matter, restrained.

Diane Kruger rules the film, appearing not just in every scene but almost every shot. She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes and she should have won the Oscar rather than Frances McDormand for the equivalent, but vastly lesser, role in Three Billboards. Kruger’s journey includes the immediate aftermath of the crime, and the first third of the film is a portrait of a woman drowning in grief. It is impeccably acted, and the whole film honours Kruger’s deep commitment. Rather incredibly, this is her first film in her native German, despite 48 acting credits – most in English, many in French – and 15 international awards. She’s superb, and reason enough to see the film.

Oscars 2018 Preview and Predictions!

CJ and Jim go through most of the categories. We have ideas, opinions and predictions. We make a financial bet over Best Original Screenplay. And at the end, we apply the Preferential Ballot System of voting to our own ballots and come up with a BOLD PREDICTION FOR BEST PICTURE! Your comments welcome and appreciated. Happy Oscars 2018!