Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Marriage Story (dir by Noah Baumbach)


The Oscar nominations were announced earlier today and, as happens every year, some of the nominations were met with acclaim while others left observers scratching their heads.  Right now, on twitter, there’s a fierce debate going on between those who think Joker deserved all of its nominations and those who believe that the Academy has once again deliberately snubbed women and people of color.

As for me, I’m just shaking my head at all the nominations for Marriage Story.  I get the feeling that, out of all of the recently unveiled best picture nominees, Marriage Story is the one that we will have forgotten about within the next year.  It’s an acclaimed film and I’m happy that Scarlett Johansson finally got a nominations (two nominations, as a matter of fact, as she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit) but, in the end, Marriage Story feels rather hollow.

Marriage Story is about the end of a marriage.  Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a New York-based theatrical director.  Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is his wife.  Nicole is an actress who, before she married Charlie, was best known for appearing topless in a teen comedy.  Charlie is often credited with having resurrected her career.  On the surface, they’re the perfect New York couple.  However, when we first meet them, their marriage is coming to an end.  Charlie, we learn, cheated on Nicole with a production assistant.  Nicole wants to go to Los Angeles so that she can star in a television series and have a career that’s not dependent upon her husband.  Caught in the middle of all this is their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).

At first, Charlie and Nicole agree to an amicable split, one with no lawyers and no accusations.  That doesn’t last.  Nicole hires the cheerfully ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern).  Charlie, after moving out to Los Angeles, finds himself torn between hiring either the the kindly (but ineffectual) Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, in a role he was born to play) or the somewhat sinister (but definitely effective) Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta, also in a role that he was born to play).  While both Charlie and Nicole try (and often) fail to maintain a civil relationship for Henry’s sake, their attorneys go to war.

There’s a lot of good things to be said about Marriage Story.  Though I think that his truly award-worthy work for 2019 was not in this film but instead in The Report, Adam Driver does a good job with role of Charlie.  Scarlett Johansson, who has so often been unfairly overlooked at awards time, again proves herself to be one of the best actresses around.  Dern, Alda, and Liotta are well-cast as three very different (but very recognizable) attorneys.  Noah Baumbach’s script has several good lines.  The scene where Nicole’s sister is awkwardly recruited to serve Charlie with the divorce papers is both funny and cringey.  The much-acclaimed scene where Charlie and Nicole go from having a polite (if awkward) conversation to yelling at each other is definitely effective even if it’s power has been diluted by it’s subsequent reinvention as a twitter meme.

That said, Marriage Story ultimately left me feeling dissatisfied.  It’s pretty much an open secret that the film is based on Noah Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and, watching the film, you can’t help but feel that you’re only getting one side of a very complex story.  My first warning sign came when Nicole left for Los Angeles and the film cut to her on the set for her new television series.  Marriage Story goes so overboard in portraying Nicole’s show as being vapid and silly that you can’t help but feel that we’re meant to look down on Nicole for abandoning Charlie’s avant-garde theater productions to star in it.  We’re meant to say, “She gave up Broadway so she could star in some second-rate Marvel show!?”  From the claim that no one took Nicole seriously until Charlie married her to it’s portrayal of her being easily manipulated by her attorney, there’s a pettiness to the film’s portrayal of Nicole.

As for Charlie, he’s presented as being flawed but, as the film progresses, it’s hard not to notice that almost all of his flaws can also serve as a humble brag.  He’s a little dorky,  He’s too intense.  He works too hard.  Sometimes, he has a hard time not being the director.  Almost all of Charlie’s flaws are the type of stuff that people mention in job interviews whenever they’re asked to name their biggest weakness.  “Well, I guess I am a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes….” It’s hard not to feel that, despite a few scenes where Nicole gets to open up, the film is really only interested in Charlie’s perspective.  By the end of the film, Marriage Story reduces Nicole to merely being an obstacle standing in the way of Charlie and his son and it’s hard not to feel that both the character and the actress who plays her deserves better than that.  The film goes from being Marriage Story to simply being Charlie’s Story.

While you’re watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in Driver and Johansson’s performances.  It’s only afterwards, when you really think about it, that you come to realize that Marriage Story doesn’t really add up to much.  It’s a good acting exercise and I’m sure that it will be popular among community theater actors who have been asked to prepare a monologue for their next audition.  But the whole is ultimately far less than the sum of its parts.

Ready or Not, Review by Case Wright (Dirs. Matt Bettinelli and Tyler Gillett)


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The will to survive is a strange thing. Why do some people give up their wallet or purse to a mugger freely and others snap and fight to the death? Back in the days when I could jog, I was in Central Park early on a Sunday and a mugger tried to take my little POS MP3 player.  I could’ve done the smart thing and given it up, but something just clicked and I started punching and punching.  His face was total shock and he wandered off.  He wasn’t threatening my life, but it didn’t matter if he were, I would’ve acted the same. And Yes, my 93 tracks ranging from Springsteen to Modest Mouse remain safe to this day.  Ready or Not tests whether Grace (Samara Weaving) has the will to survive and she didn’t even have an ipod to protect.

The people hunting people is almost a sub-genre, but this movie had style.  It’s got horrible and quasi-incompetent murderers, a tough but vulnerable heroine, and lots and lots of BLOOD!

Grace is set to marry into a family of rich asshats who treat her like garbage.  Well, except for Daniel (Adam Brody) the brother of Alex – the groom to be.  Daniel thinks she should leave because she’s too good for his worthless family.  Daniel has a point.  The aunt is a mean spirited jerk and all of the people who enter the family are pretty desperate in one way or the other, making them agreeable to participate in their lethal affairs.

Grace decides to marry Alex anyway even though the family’s shitty personalities are on full-display.  The honeymoon begins and Grace must choose a card because she is entering the family.  A creepy box has a playing card and determines which card; sometimes the game is Chess, Checkers, or Hide and Seek.  If Hide and Seek is chosen, the family will hunt the new entrant to the family and sacrifice him or her to Satan- In-Laws … Am I Right?!!!

Grace picks hide and seek and the game is a foot….dun dun dun! This kicks off a lot of suspense and humor as Grace fights her in-laws to the death.  Grace asks her new husband Daniel why he didn’t warn her that his family is a bunch psycho killers?  His response: You would’ve left me.  Daniel, you suck! We all hate you Daniel…A LOT!

The family hunts Grace all over the estate and she gets hurt and screams….and Screams…AND SCREAMS! Samara Weaving’s screams are THE BEST EVER.  They are a mixture of gutteral staccato and high pitched terror and they are legit real.  All other scream queens before her must hail the new Queen.   Here is an example of Samara’s amazing scream queen skills:

RIGHT?!!!! She’s is legit awesome – a throwback and beyond to the glory days of horror. She’s a mix of vulnerable and badass, cunning and funny, basically she rocks this entire movie! Everyone should go see this movie tonight!

Yes, this review is a little brief, but I don’t want to spoil too much.  Enjoy!

 

Playing Catch-Up: Arrival (dir by Denis Villeneuve)


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I cannot begin to express how happy I was when I learned that the Directors Guild of America had nominated Denis Villeneuve for his work on Arrival.

Arrival was one of the best films of 2016.  In fact, I would argue that it’s one of the best science fiction films that I’ve ever seen.  There were a lot of reasons for that, of course.  There was the brilliant script by Eric Heisserer.  There was the starring performance of Amy Adams, who is one of the best actresses working today.  There was a surprise and thought-provoking twist, one that forced you to reconsider everything that you previously believed.  There were so many reasons why Arrival was a great film but, ultimately, it call came down to Denis Villeneuve.

Working with material that would have led most directors down the road to bombast, Villeneuve instead took a deliberately low-key approach.  Whereas most directors would have encouraged their cast to play up the drama, Villeneuve encourages his actors to take a more inward and cerebral approach to the material.  Arrival is a rarity — a film about smart people in which the people actually seem to be smart.  For once, we don’t need expositionary characters to pop up and tell us that Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are brilliant.  Instead, we simply believe they are from what we see on the screen.  Much like last year’s Sicario, Arrival proves that Villeneuve is a visionary director.

Arrival is a hard film to describe, not because it’s overly complicated but because there’s a huge twist that I really can’t reveal.  Before the twist, Arrival is simply a well-directed sci-fi film.  After the twist, it is something all together different, an intense meditation on faith, love, language, and destiny.  Since I’m reviewing the film late, chances are that you already know about the twist but I’m still not going to spoil it.

What I can tell you is that Arrival opens with the arrival of twelve spaceships, all of which land at different places across the world.  The Chinese have a spaceship.  The British have a spaceship.  I imagine that the Canadians have a spaceship, because who wouldn’t want to hang out with the Canadians?  And, of course, the Americans have a spaceship.  The aliens are inside the spaceships.  They’re octopus-like creatures, ones that almost look as if they could have come from one of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories.  The aliens may appear to be fearsome but they actually seem to be rather benevolent.  No one’s quite sure because the aliens communicate through a complex series of symbols and nobody can understand what those symbols mean.

Louise Banks is a linguist.  Ian Donnelly is a physicist.  The Americans bring both in to help translate the symbols.  Of course, the rest of the world has their own linguists and physicists working to translate the symbols and, humans being humans, it often seems that the Americans and the Chinese are less concerned with translating what the aliens are saying and more concerned with being the first to understand.  While Louise works, she continues to be haunted by dreams and visions of her daughter’s death from cancer.

And that’s really all I can tell you without spoiling the film and potentially making myself cry.  But I will say that if you haven’t seen Arrival, you must go out and see it now.  It’s one of the most thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching films of the past year.

Add to that, it’s probably going to be nominated for best picture.  It’s been overshadowed a bit by all the attention paid to La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester By The Sea.  But Arrival is just as good a film as any of them.  In fact, in the future, we’ll probably look at Arrival and say that it was better than all of them.