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.

Ghost In The Shell

null

Watch CJ and Miriam discuss the film on Watch This: 

http://www.skipi.tv/wt21/

***1/2

Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of the manga/anime/TV/web series franchise Ghost In the Shell is almost shockingly strange, disquieting, melancholic, creepy, and sad. For a big-studio, extremely expensive, bus-stop-and-billboard-advertised piece of mainstream entertainment, it feels astonishingly personal, authentic, and artsy; it doesn’t smell mainstream at all.

Sanders has gotten away with sneaking personality into Hollywood product before, with 2012’s Snow White and The Huntsman, which was creepier and more interesting than it had any right to be. His career is rather astonishing; Snow White and The Huntsman was his first feature film and this is his second; it’s like he got to pilot the Jumbo without ever having to fly the Cessnock. But it’s deserved; he has an insightful eye and a true sense of mood.

Besides an extraordinary VFX team, his essential collaborator here is Scarlett Johansson, playing a cyborg – more specifically, a totally robotic body housing a totally human brain – known as Major, who, considered a weapon, is deployed to fight cyber-terrorism in a murky, rainy and hyper-commercialised future lovingly and liberally referencing the cityscapes of Blade Runner (1982). Johansson, who must be about as in-demand an A-List movie star as it’s possible to be, has chosen to devote a recent chunk of her career to playing extraordinary beings whose resemblance to human beings is only skin-deep – literally so here and in Under The Skin (2014), and also in Lucy (2014) and as Black Widow in the ongoing Marvel Studios Avengers franchise. In all of these films Johansson demonstrates herself as a gifted and bold physical performer, making striking choices with her posture, her limbs, her gait, but it is in Under The Skin and again here that she approaches the uncanny. In both films, she fully commits, through brave physical choices, to playing a non-human. Alicia Vikander pulled it off too, in Ex Machina (2015), but I can’t think of any other current movie star making a deliberate habit of this kind of work. (Some action stars may give “robotic” performances, but that’s something else entirely). Again, in the context of a massive studio movie designed to make money, Johansson’s performance – which works completely – is audacious. Her cyborg owes its strange gait more than a little to the animated portrayal in the 1995 feature anime film, but is filled with vulnerability, pathos and pain. She is a tragic figure.

null

The film owes Blade Runner more than credit for inspiring its production design; the underlying material obviously owes a huge debt, on a story and thematic level, to that film and its source material, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The emotional core of this film, as of Ridley Scott’s classic, centres on the pain cyborgs / androids feel when they are forced to encounter the boundaries of their humanity. It’s a very rich vein, encompassing concepts of second-class citizenry, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotic warfare, and, somehow most obliquely and obviously, class. We have seen it before – and we’ve seen it better – but it’s closer to our IRL (in real life) situation than ever. Unfortunately, storytelling is Ghost In The Shell’s weakest attribute. For the first act it’s practically impenetrable.

But the mood, the visuals, the style, and the performances are utterly compelling and, in an age of CGI marvels (pun kind of intended), manage to feel original and grown-up. Johansson’s compelling creation is supported by similarly ambitious performances from Pilou Asbaek and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. Asbaek in particular finds, like Johansson, great pain and sadness in augmented humanity. He gets some sort of visual robotics hard-wired onto his face, expanding his visual capabilities, but then complains to Major that he finds it tricky to drive with them. It’s a sad, strange moment but it carries a lot of weight; as we all revel in our new digital lives, how often do we realise that for everything we’re gaining, we’re also constantly giving things up?

null