Tuesday, November 12, 2019

marriage story

Situated near Trump Tower and the Plaza Hotel, the no-frills, yet inherently classy Paris Theater in New York City has a history of single-screen showings of films that appeal to the upper-class and intellectuals. After its recent closure, streaming giant Netflix swept in and re-opened it. It feels like a splashy and perceptive PR move: usher in screenings of their slate of films like Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story that were refused showings in chain cinemas for awards season consideration, while also rescuing an institution of cinema-going. Marriage Story in particular speaks to the sort of audience who would go to the Paris Theater--a classy set, craving complicated, grown-up entertainment which has become more scarce yearly in movies. I came to the Paris on a mild Fall morning on the eve of Veteran's Day--barricades and security around Trump Tower, more stacked than usual, before his impending arrival for the day's ceremonies. The theater was half-full, an older crowd mainly clad in black coats. In the cold-ish dark, it felt like the set-up for a stuffy experience. Ultimately, however, Marriage Story emerges, like its influential predecessor, Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer, as something much more warm, earthy and broad-appealing than what a typical upper-crust character study may imply.

Baumbach's films, in dramatic and witty ways, look at characters in crisis. They are mapped out with alluring, but seemingly no-nonsense theatrical flair. They feel studied, beautifully executed and organic at the same time--a miraculous combination that has made Baumbach a fixture but also underrated as an auteur. Young couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are going through a bi-coastal divorce, while raising their young son Henry (a nod to Justin Henry?), played by Azhy Robertson. As their relationship is fraught romantically, they are also coming apart in their livelihoods. Charlie wants to maintain his creative life in Park Slope as a talented New York theater director. Nicole wants to establish herself outside the confines of performing in Charlie's work, by shooting a pilot in Los Angeles, while also yearning to become a director herself. Like the couple in Kramer vs. Kramer, Charlie and Nicole have a somewhat enviable status (Charlie nabs a MacArthur Genius Grant), but with the aid of the gifted players portraying them, the characters emerge as sympathetic and whole in their personal tumult, especially as they battle their lives through the harsh (and harshly-lit) courts; Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta play lawyers with their own specific personalities, battles and at times, morally suspect agendas--some more blatant than others.

All of the dramas and poignant comic moments are drawn exquisitely by Baumbach and his talented crew. I've always been a fan of the editor Jennifer Lame, who did such lovely work on Baumbach's Frances Ha. It's the kind of non-flashy editing that often doesn't get recognized. There is one symbolic scene in Marriage Story, involving the closing of a gate, that's one of the best edited sequences I've seen this year. Throughout, as we see the couple and lawyers spar, the awkwardness of family life, the rhythms of the film are achingly apt. Shot by Robbie Ryan (The Favourite), the movie captures both the New York setting and L.A. settings well, especially interiors. 

I was entranced by Randy Newman's score. It's a risky one for these times: tuneful, romantic; sprightly strings, horns, and reeds.  Definitely a score of late bygone sensibilities (almost like silent film ragtime-esque score re-writes) that's been out-of-style for decades. Immediately, it establishes the singular atmosphere of the picture. The movie opens with a whimsical portrait of what both characters "love" about one another--through a scattershot of imagery. It's completely charming and ends up culminating in a devastating way. Overall, music in the film is elegant and spry, but also fragile, and compliments emotionally raw moments of the story effectively. A particular Broadway musical chestnut becomes a naked expression of Charlie's bewilderment at his situation.

Outside of its technical merits, Marriage Story boasts a terrific ensemble. Johansson hasn't been given a role as strong in quite some time--and she kills. Often with tear-rimmed eyes, and an expression of emotional exhaustion, she gives a layered turn. A monologue in her lawyer's office is an impressive moment: it's an actor's showcase, but you also feel her character deeply through her delivery and specificity of action. Driver has always been a fun actor to watch. Here, he's in one of his deepest, most vulnerable roles. I couldn't help but tear up at his gangly "Invisible Man"--earnestly and desperately trying to create a fun Halloween for his son in sprawling, late night L.A. There's plenty of moments like these of quiet tenderness and bittersweet, physical comedy that's just as wrenching as a painful, drab-apartment-set shouting match. In supporting parts, Laura Dern is electric as high-powered attorney Nora. Had she not already been so wicked in her Big Little Lies turn, the performance would be even more startling. On a surface level, she emerges as a sort of villain in Marriage Story, but in hindsight, she's something more complex, especially after a biting, delicious monologue towards the end of the picture--you can see she's surviving (and thriving) in an extremely flawed system. In contrast, Alda is appealing as a fuddy-duddy lawyer in his cluttered office, seemingly beleaguered by the system and amusingly weary from his own rocky past relationships. It's great to see Airplane!'s Julie Hagerty so pitch-perfect, funny and believable as Nicole's mother. And Merritt Wever, who was so utterly fantastic in this year's Unbelievable series, is great in one of the movie's funniest screwball scenes. Even actors in bit parts, like Martha Kelly as "The Evaluator," are outstanding. I felt most distant from Henry's character, perhaps because the movie is mostly entrenched in the perspective of adults. Azhy Robertson does good work with a tricky role that could easily be too precious or irritating.

Released at the end of its decade, Kramer vs. Kramer was the top-grossing film of 1979. Mainstream audiences flocked to see it in the theater! It was a cultural phenomenon. It had a Vivaldi soundtrack and was a zeitgeist picture of its time! I doubt at the end of this decade, Marriage Story will make the same impact. As Netflix holds its grip on striving to both capitalize on auteurs making great movies and also drive pronounced competition against traditional movie-going, we, as American viewers, are left at the end of the 2010s on wobbly territory (like the uncertain leasing of a single-screen theater) for the future of the movies and its experience. We get more bang for our buck for spectacle on widescreen, but as I got up and left the picture, passing a woman sobbing alone in her seat as the end credits neared their conclusion, the lights coming up a little bit in the Paris, I felt immensely touched and satisfied. With Marriage Story, Baumbach affirms the power of the art-form through the compact, fleeting time frame, script, visuals, references, and rich performances. It couldn't be anything else but a movie. ****

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, November 1, 2019

that's love can do

This early 90s Stock/Aitken/Waterman dance tune by Boy Krazy has got me vibin' lately. Love it so much!

Thursday, October 31, 2019


Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, there has been no major film about Harriet Tubman until now; Kasi Lemmons' (Eve's Bayou) new film comes riddled with great anticipation and expectations. For those looking for a complex portrait of this symbolic pillar of American history, whose life is still opaque and underappreciated by many (even to get her on the twenty dollar bill in recent times has been met with ridiculous opposition), will not be completely fulfilled. However, the movie is slick and involving--thanks to its brisk pace, handsome photography (by John Toll, who established the look of the historical epic of the mid-1990s with his Oscar-winning work on both Legends of the Fall and Braveheart), and a graceful, centerpiece turn from Cynthia Erivo.

Harriet mainly focuses upon Tubman's first escape from slavery and her subsequent trips back to lead over seventy slaves to freedom. She is often hit with bouts of spiritual "visions" which guide her throughout her courageous quests. These visions are lensed with a bluish tint--a chaotic, quick-flitted rendering of abuse in chattel. I was reminded of the snowy, bird-swept prophetic visions in well water in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain--a subversive nod, if it is indeed a reference here. What makes Lemmons' film compelling (and somewhat subversive) is that it seems molded after white male hero historical action dramas that have been churned out from the Hollywood machine for decades. The captivating Erivo, defies the odds pitted against her--including slave owner Gideon (Joe Alwyn)-- and rises to occasion. Despite the movie's rousing surface narrative, there is also the complexity of her life in Philadelphia with abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a stinging undercurrent in her friendship with her elegant, born-free house mother Marie (Janelle Monáe).

After my screening, someone shouted "be blessed all." Someone laughed and said, "you too." Even if the film leans heavily into faith-based appeal, I guess there could be worse notes to leave on in these times. Outside, a mother and her young daughter took a selfie in front of the poster--an image of Harriet, with her cocked hat and rifle--that has been buried in history books and popular imagination in favor for the older, regal Tubman in her later years. The mother and daughter smiled and walked away into our current moment. A film can't capture everything in history but when it skims a surface that wants to make you want to explore deeper, there is a value there. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

For further reading, I appreciated this Vanity Fair article from K. Austin Collins which has a unique perspective compared to many critical reviews I've read and why it's more mysterious, runs deep: "... there’s a tension at work in Harriet that’s missing from other, 'better' movies. Sometimes, Lemmons—who directed the wonderfully spectral Southern gothic Eve’s Bayou—hits you with a curious bit of framing or a propulsive bit of energy, visions of a world that’s as alive with danger as it is with spiritual possibility. It’s also a vaster and in many ways wilder film than it will get credit for, a movie that leans into the excitement of Tubman’s mission so energetically it almost morphs into a heist picture, dredging up odd romantic and religious energies along the way."

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

western stars

Bruce Springsteen has long been emblematic of American yearning. His new solo album, Western Stars, is a wistful, grand collection of songs. The rock edge of his previous work is more understated and spare here, giving way to a gorgeously-produced full orchestra--with remnants of homage to Glen Campbell's string-drenched Jimmy Webb-penned tunes. The gravel of Springsteen's voice adds a nice tension to the lush tracks. In the film Western Stars, directed by Springsteen and Thom Zimny, Bruce and orchestra play for a small, quiet, seated audience in his hundred-year old, worn-down barn, lit atmospherically by strewn lights.

Those expecting raucous arena rock may either be disappointed or intrigued by the deliberately-paced, string and mellow horn-laden tunes. An effective Patti Scialfa performs by his side. Her addition to "Stones" is particularly haunting and reflective and better than the track on the album release. With the exception of a rousing cover of "Rhinestone Cowboy," the film is mostly a play-by-play of the record--no Springsteen chestnut standards emerge. The staid, though vocally and instrumentally impressive, performances are interspersed with slow-mo horses over open landscapes, flitting vintage home movie Americana and some footage of a younger Bruce and Patti. The imagery is not particularly striking, but lovely and pleasing to look at; over it, Bruce ruminates in platitudes on growing old, cars, nature, relationships and the origins of his songs. Overall, Western Stars the film deepened my appreciation of the album and is a nice slice of an artist still delivering beautiful work, even if its wrapped in a sleepy shroud of stars. ***

-Jeffery Berg