Spoiler-Free Reviews of Trending Movies (OCT 2020)

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon)

Yes, Rudy is in this mock documentary (and doesn’t come off as so innocent)! Of course, y’all can see and judge if you’re curious. This is NOT the type of humor for sensitive viewers, as some of it is quite gross, vulgar, and cringe-y. This time, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) is joined by his wide-eyed teen daughter, Tutar (24 y.o. Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova), who may be interested in becoming a journo also. Bakalova may be the breakout star here, as she can go toe-to-toe w/ the British comedian/filmmaker! Look out for a touching scene involving Borat and two elderly Jewish women. There is also a Black woman (babysitter) who gives Tutar some good advice. If you’re already a left-of-center (liberal) individual, you may be LOL-ing at the politically-charged stuff. I almost couldn’t believe that Cohen snuck into CPAC (which took place in FEB 2020 in DC)!

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)

In Chicago 1968, the Democratic convention was met w/ protests from activists like the moderate Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and the militant Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong from Succession), which led to violent confrontations w/ police. Seven of the accused ringleaders are arraigned on charges like conspiracy by the hostile Nixon administration, incl. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II- a rising star in Hollywood) of the Black Panthers (who wasn’t involved in the incident). What follows is an unfair trial presided by Judge Hoffman (veteran actor Frank Langella) and prosecuted by a reluctant, but duty-bound Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Two of the defense lawyers are William Kunstler (Mark Rylance- a British theater star) from the ACLU and Leonard Weinglass (character actor Ben Shenkman), an expert on constitutional law.

I saw this last week; I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing (though haven’t seen all of his shows). Sorkin was approached by Spielberg several years ago re: writing this film- WOW! If you’re into US history, costumes, legal drama, and politics- you’ll enjoy the movie. Otherwise, it could come off as a bit boring; the directing style Sorkin uses is simple/straightforward. I liked the humor (which was mainly provided by Baron Cohen and Strong) and I learned some new things, too. I enjoyed seeing the subtle acting from Gordon-Levitt (now almost 40- whoa), Rylance, and Shenkman (who you may know from Angels in America).

Rebecca (Netflix)

Here was the (short) review I shared via Twitter last FRI night: Not sexy, not suspenseful, not one bit scary- just cliched, colorful, & clueless! Fans on my Alfred Hitchcock Facebook group were (mostly) reluctant to watch this version, though it’s not a remake. This is an adaptation of the novel (which I didn’t read); I suspect it’s not totally faithful. Though it delves into class issues, there is very little age gap between the leads. Viewers looking for the LGBTQ element to be explored further (w/ Mrs. Danvers) will be disappointed. The director (Ben Wheatley) doesn’t do much w/ light and shadow- a missed opportunity!

I don’t love or hate Lily James, but I don’t think this role suited her. The same goes for Armie Hammer (tall/conventionally handsome); he acts wooden, lacks mystery, and has no romantic chemistry w/ James. His accent is way off- it’s more Mid-Atlantic than British. I haven’t seen much of his acting, but I thought he’d be a LOT better than this! I did enjoy seeing Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale) and the (still gorgeous) Kristin Scott Thomas. What we have is a movie where the costumes and scenery overtake the people in the story. The supporting actors did well w/ what they were given, esp. the prosecutor (in the third act). The ending scene looks like it belongs in a different movie- MANY viewers were confused!

SPOILER-FREE Review: “Marriage Story” starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

This Netflix movie (released also 30 days in theaters) is based in large part on director Noah Baumbach’s own experiences when he divorced actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. Jason Leigh (the “Jason” was added as tribute to actor Jason Robards- a close friend of her parents), on whom the character of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) was based, had early success in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baumbach and Leigh previously collaborated on movies together; during the 2009 filming of Greenberg, he and actress/director of Little Women– Greta Gerwig- fell in love. Theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in Mishawaka, IN. The toys shown while Nicole plays w/ son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in the opening are from Star Wars, a reference to Driver’s connection to that sci-fi franchise. Celeb divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern- now winner of Best Supporting Actress Oscar), is loosely based on Laura Wasser (who represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach) during their divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building.

This film has something for everyone– domestic drama, comedy (arising from realistic situations), music, courtroom drama, etc. Charlie sings Being Alive (which Gerwig admitted Baumbach wouldn’t do), and Nicole sings You Could Drive a Person Crazy from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. Many of us know that Johansson can tackle challenging roles (having seen her since she was an ingenue at 16 y.o.); here Driver gets a chance to shine (and whoa, is he bright)! Both actors are very comfortable with each other; they play the quiet and intense scenes well. You really don’t see the acting- as it should be. You will see some similarities to Kramer vs. Kramer starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; however, in this story- the wife gets an equal voice (which wasn’t given to Streep).

The supporting actors are all well-suited for their parts, no matter how small or meaty. The child actor comes off as very natural. Merritt Wever plays Cassie’s older sis (also an actor); she provides some comic relief, as does the mom (who is a big fan of her son-in-law). Charlie’s theater troupe includes a few familiar faces, such as Wallace Shawn (best know as the villain in The Princess Bride). Alan Alda’s soft-hearted lawyer breaks down what men really go through in a divorce. On the other hand, we see the intimidating/shark-like lawyer (Ray Liotta) who gets results.

SPOILER-FREE Reviews: “Jojo Rabbit,” “Joker,” & “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Jojo Rabbit

This is an unique movie- that’s for sure- and it worked! It is a mix of comedy (satire), history, and drama from the mind of New Zealander, Taika Waititi, who also plays Jojo’s imaginary friend (Hitler). Waititi (who used to focus on acting before directing) is far from Aryan; he gets his unique (for mainstream Hollywood) looks from his Jewish mother and Maori father. This movie is a must-see for the touching/nuanced/realistic acting of its child/teen actors: Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo), Thomsin McKenzie (Elsa), and Archie Yates (Yorki). Scarlett Johansson (who got a Supporting Actress Oscar nom) does a fine job as the mom (Rosie). Jojo is fascinated by Hitler and joins a sort of Youth Movement (a Nazi-inspired Summer camp). The sunny/bright look of the film is in direct contrast to its themes. The supporting actors incl. Sam Rockwell (not a fan but he gets a good scene), Alfie Allen (from GoT fame), Rebel Wilson (who I found distracting), and Stephen Merchant (a tall/British comedian who is hilarious).

Joker

As a whole, this movie (loosely connected to the world of Batman) wasn’t as effective (or realistic) as I was expecting. It’s partly an exploration of mental illness, so not the (typical) development of the comic book villain- Arthur Fleck (AKA The Joker). I felt the audience was uneasy (incl. one particularly violent/bloody scene); Arthur gets beaten in several scenes. However, it’s a must-see for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance (incl. his physical transformation). The dark/dreary look of the film is very fitting of its themes. As some critics commented, if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, Falling Down, and/or Fight Club– I haven’t, then maybe this movie won’t be original to you. I was surprised to learn that director Todd Philips worked on The Hangover franchise. The supporting actors come from the theater world (Frances Conroy plays the invalid mother) or are character actors. Critics have commented on the way race (particularly black women) are treated here. There are (at least) two big twists to this movie, but were they expected? You’ll need to see/judge for yourself!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I’ve only seen three of Tarantino’s movies (so far): Natural Born Killers (1994)- which I barely recall, Inglourious Basterds (2009)- which I thought was very well-done, and Django Unchained (2012)- which was interesting, yet also self-indulgent. This is Tarantino’s 9th film; its a mix of buddy comedy, nostalgia for ’50s Hollywood/Westerns, and strong violence. In the first third, we see the development of the friendship between a middle-aged/fading TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his former stuntman-turned-driver, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). These two actors have great chemistry together! Rick is somewhat insecure re: his talent, and drinks way too much to compensate. Cliff maintains a more chill vibe, though we learn about his (potentially) dark past about at hour into the story.

The supporting actors are a mix of well-known TV actors who may or may not be distracting (incl. Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham, and 90210’s Luke Perry- his final role); the daughters of famous actors (Margaret Qualley, Rumer Willis, Maya Hawke, among others); and also some actors who never quite “made it big” in Hollywood. The super-serious child actor really did great in her scenes! There has been criticism of how B-movie actress, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and martial arts expert, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), were portrayed in the film. Tate comes off as a beautiful object; she gets one really good scene. The (flashback) scene between Cliff and Lee just seems unreal; I think it’s open to interpretation. It has some fine moments, but (as a whole) is self-indulgent, slow, and muddled.

“Midsommar” (2019) starring Florence Pugh

I think this film depicts a broader social commentary about cult mindset – the destruction of one’s individualism and systematic breakdown of one’s personality to become part of a “collective”/hive mindset.

To have another person acknowledge your grief, confusion and deep inner pain would be therapeutic. Instead of ignoring it, denying it, putting a mask on to try and be ‘happy’ without help. …the friend tells Christian, ‘dude, she needs therapy’ and he’s right- she does. But the group of boys Dani travels with are unable or unwilling to sympathize with her- the main person who should, Christian, was checked out.

I was also disappointed in how the main characters were handled. I hoped they would be given some depth, but they ended up becoming cliche caricatures.

-Excerpts from reviews posted on YouTube

Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. -Synopsis from A24 (studio)

Whoa, WHAT did I just see!? And what does it mean? This indie horror film, or perhaps psychological drama, is now on streaming (Amazon Prime). The writer/director, Ari Astor, explained that this was the story of a break-up. It’s also about the individual’s need for connection, community, and acceptance. Warning: This is NOT for everyone, as it is slow, has a long running time, and has several scenes (incl. blood, nudity, etc.) which will be difficult for sensitive viewers. I heard re: this film in Summer 2019 from a few podcasts, so did get spoiled on some of the events. I was even shocked by the gruesome nature of two scenes in particular.

He’s my good friend and I like him, but… Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you? -Pelle asks re: Christian

Pugh (Amy in Little Women) does a fine job w/ her role; sadly, she is the ONLY character who is well-developed. We can empathize w/ Dani, who suffers a great loss, lives w/ anxiety, and fears being “too needy.” She is studying Psychology in grad school; she could benefit from some counseling herself. Reynor (an American/Irish actor) doesn’t have much of a screen presence, though he is tall and conventionally handsome. He is the boyfriend who has one foot out the door; from the get go, we know he’s NOT deeply invested in the relationship. Later, he tries to “collaborate” w/ Josh, who is more of a scholar and has done background work on the Harga. As some critics commented, Christian didn’t deserve the harsh ending which he received.

Christian and his fellow American pals (Mark and Josh) don’t speak and act like grad students in Anthropology; they seem like stereotypical/insensitive frat boys. Pelle (Swedish actor Vilhelm Blomgren) is the friend who invites the others to spend the Summer in his community; he seems trusty, sensitive and kind. Pelle is concerned about Dani’s mental state; it has only been a few months since she had a tragedy in her life. Mark (British actor Will Poulter) is the comic element; he wants just get high, and to hook up w/ Swedish women (who he calls “the most beautiful in the world”). One the other hand, Josh (American actor William Jackson Harper), has a curious mind and plans to do his thesis on these Harga people.

This film is very white; it’s about an insular/rural Swedish commune where the sun always shines. I did like seeing the diversity when it came to age, body type, and size. There are some scenes w/o English subtitles, so most viewers will be confused like the Americans. A black journo commented that she didn’t like seeing the few people of color (POC), incl. Josh and the British couple- Connie (Elloria Torchi from Indian Summers) and Simon (Archie Madekwe)- being used as one-note plot devices. Was this intentional? Or is this what happens in most horror stories to everyone, incl. POC?

Some things work very well in this film. Aster has a vision and he goes for it full-force (world-building). It is unusually beautiful to look at and the cinematography is award-worthy; it was shot primarily in Hungary (stand-in for Sweden). The special effects are unique; I’ve never seen anything like it). A few viewers commented that these reflect what it feels like to be on ‘shrooms. You will find yourself wondering- how did Aster come up w/ this stuff!? I learned that he conducted years of research. FYI: The rituals conducted all have basis in history- yikes!

New Year, New Reviews: “Bombshell” & “Little Women”

NOW PLAYING

Bombshell (2019) starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, & Kate McKinnon

There are some fine performances here, esp. from Theron (in role of lawyer- turned-journo Megyn Kelly) and Lithgow (Roger Ailes); they are also transformed through prosthetics, wigs, makeup, etc. Kidman (Gretchen Carlson) was the most easy to empathize w/ (IMO); I wished she was had a bigger role. I have to admit that Kidman is having a great resurgence these past few yrs; I didn’t appreciate her skills (when I was younger). Robbie (I’m slowly warming up to her acting) plays a fictional character who is eager to get onscreen work. McKinnon (from SNL fame) becomes friends w/ her; they have some nice chemistry. As a whole, I was NOT blown away by this film (which may remind you of the works of Adam McKay, director of Vice). There are MANY cameos in to enjoy- I won’t give it away; after all, there are VERY serious themes to explore! If you follow the news/politics, then you should check it out ASAP! Otherwise, wait for it to come to streaming.

Little Women (2019) starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, & Meryl Streep

The new adaptation (directed by Greta Gerwig) is VERY good- I went to free screening w/ several friends the week before it was released (on Christmas Day). I’ve seen the major film adaptations- ‘30s, late ‘40s, and ‘90s (my family loved that one). There are a few odd choices w/ the casting, as you will see. This film has unique takes- it plays w/ time (starting from the middle of the book and going back, then forward); has more nuanced characterization of smaller characters; and Chalamet (who I really enjoyed) has a fresh take on Laurie (the boy who wants to belong to the March family in some way). Chalamet, who some feel is getting TOO many meaty roles, gives Laurie a light/humorous bent (one critic compared his movements to Chaplin). I loved Christian Bale’s take on Laurie- it will always be my fave. I thought Ronan made a great Jo; I thought the writing, then trying to publish, scenes were great additions. Pugh (who is a fresh face to me) does a great job as Amy, who is usually the sister people love to hate. Amy’s scene re: the practical side of marriage stands out in my mind. The scenery, clothing (some of which was styled by the actors), and music are great- as expected. I consider this a MUST-SEE for fans of the book or the previous movies!