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.

“Humraaz” (2002) starring Bobby Deol, Akshaye Khanna, & Ameesha Patel

…a look into the dark side of ambition. Each character has questionable motives, and the human drama alone kept me riveted through the film. The acting is convincing and the plot has many surprising twists and turns.

The plot was sneaky. You didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was totally shocked with the ending. They put a lot of work into the dancing, and it showed.

Abbas Mustan [the directing duo] lay pretty heavy emphasis on the villains in their films, and this film is no exception.

This is the Bollywood remake (or re-imagining) of A Perfect Murder (1998) starring Michael Douglas, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen. It was also somewhat influenced by Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). The title of Humraaz (“soulmate”) refers to “someone who knows your secret or someone whom you have shared your secret with.” You can’t skip the songs here, b/c every great playback singer of that era sung in this movie! Karan (Akshaye Khanna), the head of a dance troupe and his girlfriend, Priya (Ameesha Patel), are two 20-somethings who have energy, passion, and talent. They audition to perform on a cruise ship owned by young industrialist, Raj Singhania (Bobby Deol).

They get the cruise job and put on a fun number (Bardaasht Nahin Kar Sakta sung by KK and Sunidhi Chuahan). Raj can’t keep his eyes off Priya. He sends her flowers, invites her to a fancy dinner, and they dance under the stars. Raj is quickly developing feelings for Priya; they go sightseeing in Malaysia (Dil Ne Kar Liya sung by Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik, my favorite Bollywood duo). Priya didn’t want to go out, b/c she vowed to walk barefoot all day (since the troupe had become “permanent status” on the cruise line). Raj decides to go barefoot also; he finds her beautiful, charming, and innocent (basically the girl of his dreams)!

On her birthday, Raj throws a big bash, and asks Karan for a “special song” (Piyar Kar sung by Udit Narayan, Shaan, and Kavita Krishnamurthy). The lyrics fit very well w/ the story. Later on deck, Raj offers Priya a ring. For a brief moment, Priya looks conflicted, but then puts it on, saying “some dreams do come true!” Priya reveals to Karan that she’s engaged. At first, Karan looks shocked, but then smiles and hugs her, exclaiming “I can’t believe it happened so fast.” It was their plan all along- get Raj to marry Priya! One of the guys in their troupe watches from afar, wondering what is up.

Raj takes Priya to his family estate in Jaipur. Dadi (Raj’s grandma w/ whom he shares a close bond) declares the couple will be married ASAP. The family and guests celebrate w/ a sweet/hopeful song (Life Ban Jaayige sung by Sonu Nigam and Jaspinder Narula). On their wedding night, Priya tells Raj that she took a vow of celibacy for one month (b/c destiny had brought them together, as she’d prayed). Raj is surprised, but then says he respects her decision.

Raj and Priya hold a reception at their house; Karan comes to congratulate them. Raj describes his new life and the many emotions w/in him (Tune Zindagi Mein by Udit Narayan). This song starts off as pretty innocent, but we get some lines where Raj talks about jealousy (foreshadowing). More drama (life-altering) ensues. We see more of the violent side of Karan (as in the opener). One morning, Priya realizes that she does love her husband! We get the title song (Sanam Mere Humraaz sung by Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik). From here on (the last 45 mins or so), the movie takes dark turns (w/ scenes that are guaranteed to shock some viewers)!

Are you missing the (loud/colorful) hair and fashions of the ’90s? FYI: Khanna is wearing a hairpiece (as he started losing his hair before his mid-20s). Do you get a kick out of seeing (old) technology? Then this may be the movie for you! It’s around 3 hrs long (no joke), so it could take 2 days to watch. The first 90 mins go pretty quickly, thanks mainly to the musical numbers. The dancers here are also supporting actors (which is rare for Bollywood). I’m a fan of Khanna; his older brother (Rahul Khanna) is also actor. Rahul is seen in indies and TV shows (in both the US and India). I recently came across an article re: Patel (who is now 44); she celebrated 20 yrs of working in Bollywood. She still looks youthful and fit; she is producing movies now.

The comedic supporting characters are mostly one-note; they are present to serve the larger story. Raj’s loyal personal assistant, Mr. Darshan (Johnny Lever) is a veteran of Bollywood. In one scene w/ Karan, Darshan (who is always worried re: “what ifs”) sums up the entire story! After leaving school (lack of funds) as teen, Lever worked on the streets (selling small items) and copied famous actors. He worked at Lever’s soap factory in Mumbai, where he entertained co-workers and earned the nickname “Johnny Lever.” Eventually, he studied comedy and toured in variety shows. In the ’80s, he met Amitabh Bachchan and started getting small roles in movies. Lever is short, stocky, curly-haired, and dark-skinned. He is from Andra Pradesh; Telegu was his first language, not Hindi. In Bollywood, there are few actors like him who have become a success.

Early Hitchcock Movie: “The 39 Steps” (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll

An unassuming Canadian bachelor, Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), living in London tries to help a mysterious woman w/ a German accent, Miss Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who turns out to be a double agent. She is killed in Hannay’s hotel room, he is accused of the murder, and goes on the run to save himself. With a map and some details (provided by Miss Smith), he also hopes to stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information. He travels by train to Scotland, hoping not to be noticed by his fellow passengers and the police. The papers are all covering the incident, of course, and some people are bound to be intrigued by the details. When Hannay pops into a car w/ a pretty blonde woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), he begs her to help him. As the police approach, he grabs her and kisses her (pretending like their newlyweds). She is not having it, so tells the police that she has never seen this man before.

In Scotland, Hannay travels on foot for some miles, looking for a certain town. He comes across a farmer in a very rural area, Mr. Crofter, who says he can stay overnight at this little house. The wife, who is much younger and mismatched w/ her gruff husband, is played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft (one of the most respected actresses of her time). When Mr. Crofter is out, Hannay and Mrs. Crofter chat about life in London, and she develops a crush on him. Later, when he tells her about his plight, she is very empathetic. After her husband gets jealous, she helps Hannay escape. The local cops are close on his trail. Hannay finds the house of a wealthy/powerful British man, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), just in time for a Sunday lunch. He runs across Pamela (again), and more improbable adventures ensue!

Some critics and viewers consider this to be Hitchcock’s most economical and best film. The 39 Steps is a romantic adventure (Hannay and Pamela share moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a rom com) with the usual Hitchcock humor; there is also a lot of metaphor and symbolism. Many of Hitchcock’s typical themes are here: marriage (of different types), human relationships, and types and levels of deception. It’s well-written and each character has a distinct look, attitude, and personality. The plot provides suspense, comedy, and drama in a rather short period of time.

You can watch the full movie (for free) here:

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!