Golden Globes: A Recap of Whatever the Hell that was

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Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg hosted the 2019 Golden Globes –or whatever it was that I just watched.

Every year around this time I am faced with the same question. It is a question as mystifyingly obscure as it is omnipresent. Shimmering with a near-existential aurora, it mocks our most basic sensibilities about art and the neverending pursuit of validation and once again this year –despite the tens of minutes I spent searching on google– I am no closer towards reaching a state of mind that can answer these cold and unforgiving questions. That question:

What the fuck is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?

Like the roar of a gun marking the start of the 100-meter dash, so too does the Golden Globes signal the beginning of the flurry of film award shows leading up to the Oscars in late February. And yet, with the voting bloc that makes up the Hollywood Foreign Press containing just 90 anonymous voters, it’s fair to wonder just how this event got so big. That’s not inherently a complaint by the way. Just like the Oscars or Emmys, I wait with bated breath every year to watch the (considerably faster paced) Golden Globes trot down the red carpet– a fountain of champagne and beautiful faces following in tow. But while they may not have the same unjustifiable prestige of the Golden Globes, it’s not like other award shows aren’t also a blast to watch. Nick Kroll and John Mulaney were a revelation for me last year as they hosted the Independent Film Awards and I find the Critics Choice Awards are always a joy.

If you had the (pleasure?) of watching the Globes last night you’ll understand why this timeless question rings even more pertinent this year around. Why it’s fair more than ever to wonder aloud just why the hell a handful of (apparently) foreign journalists living in southern California are in charge of one of the biggest televised award shows. Because there’s no other way to say it: last night was an at times excruciatingly painful train-wreck. The Golden Globes has always been known for their “off-kilter” choices and the free-flowing alcohol and lack of food served during the award ceremony have lead to some… energetic actions in years past. But last night, from the less talked about problems like terrible sound design and a never-ending excess of advertisements to the much more noticeable problems such as the atrocious job done by hosting duo Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg and some inexplicable winners, may just take the cake.

The struggles of the Oscars to pick an acceptable host have been well publicized in recent weeks, but last night was nothing but a neatly wrapped late Christmas present for the embattled show. The Golden Globes has found itself in hot water for its more “aggressive” hosts in the past (cough Ricky Gervais) and with the election of Trump, the famously left-wing Hollywood has had more than a few things to say when given a nationwide audience. So with a decline in ratings for the Globes and I think an unease in speaking-truth-to-power in fear that it may alienate the snowflakes of middle-America, there’s been a push to avoid more controversial hosts. I don’t know, maybe that sentiment is a little harsh on my part. These are, after all, entertainment award shows and many people see the movies as purely a form of escapism. Hate him or blindly follow him, it can be a drain to hear nothing but the echoes of “Trump” every waking second. But whatever your opinion, I think it’s easy to agree that last night’s hosting performance is not the right answer. It was borderline completely incompetent, and whatever lies in fate for the Oscars it’s gonna shine in comparison.

Building every joke off of the idea that Samberg and Oh were picked because they were nice, our hosts spent most of the opening monologue “burning” members of the audience with sick compliments. Whether it was a nice idea on paper or simply doomed from the start it’s hard to say, but the result was an unwatchable cringe-fest that had me scrambling for the door and my sister hiding her head underneath the table. The deliveries of the lines were poor, but the jokes themselves, which smelled underneath their rote emptiness as if they had been handled with greasy corporate hands, were far worse.

Samberg, as evident by his brilliant work from Brooklyn 99 to SNL to his previous hosting appearances, is fully qualified and capable of delivering a splendid job under the limelight. Tonight though, it was an unmitigated bomb.

Sandra Oh is a phenomenal actress (she won a Globe last night for her work on Killing Eve) and by all accounts a terrific and upbeat person. She is not, however, a comedian.

Almost none of the jokes landed, and while I get that the Globes were trying to leverage the similarly upbeat optimism in both Samberg and Oh, it was a complete and utter failure. That’s, of course, not to say absolutely nothing worked. Parodying the selfies and pizza parties put on by the Oscars to humanize the stars, a genuinely inspired bit had flu shots given out midway through the show and offered a timely dig at anti-vaxers. And while Oh may not have had the necessary comedic chops, when she ignored the garbage the teleprompter was forcing upon her and spoke from the heart there was a glimmer of a much better outing. For example, a heartfelt message delivered at the end of the opening monologue by Oh about the importance of the unprecedented diversity on screen this year was beautiful and tear-inducing, and Oh’s interactions with her parents watching in the audience were adorable.

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Sandra Oh may not have won at hosting, but she took home gold when all was said and done.

Despite a problem with audience volume and billions of ads serving as a buffer to the far too slight telecast, the rest of the show went much more smoothly. The Globes for a large portion of the show did what it does best, awarding some well-deserved victores (Alfonso Curran won two awards for Roma and Christian Bale put himself in front for the Oscar after winning Best Actor), shining light on some under-the-radar entries (The Netflix Original The Kominsky Method walked away with two awards including best comedy and Glenn Close won best actress for the unheard of The Wife), and reminiscing with a few well deserved lifetime achievement awards (Jeff Bridges won the Cecil B. DeMille award and Carol Burnett won the inaugural Carol Burnett award). And while the evening strongly lacked more and better material, as is the story every year–from an unfathomably Welsh Christian Bale (Vice) giving a fantastic award speech to some moving speeches from Mark Ronson (A Star is Born) and Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)–there were a number of fun highlights. I’ll attach the full list of winners below, and I believe every award speech should be up on NBC’s YouTube page.

The main attention, however, and quite deservedly so, will go to some of the more peculiar terrible picks. The increasingly controversial Green Book sparked backlash after taking home best screenplay, supporting actor (Mahershala Ali), and best comedy/musical. But while Green Book’s Globe’s leading three wins were surprising and some of the criticisms against the movie valid (I’ll have a full review up shortly) they were not either fully undeserved or out of left field against a movie with an A+ cinema score and wide critical praise. No, the real shock of the night would come for the last 2 awards given: best actor in a drama and best drama were both won Queen Biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. If you read my review of Bohemian Rhapsody you’ll be able to guess my reaction when the film secured a nomination for best drama. While I get that there are entertaining moments to the movie and it is not herein the worst film ever made, the positive reaction some fans have had for this movie is completely inexplicable. I understand Queen matters to people, and I understand why the blithe mediocrity onscreen when set to some of the greatest songs in recent history was palatable. But c’mon man.

 

C’mon.

 

It’s taking every ounce of my miniscule willpower not to open the flood-gates and unleash the swirl of obscenities in my head right now. I can only guess what Bradley Cooper, who was shockingly shut out for his work on A Star is Born, must be feeling. 

Because Bohemian Rhapsody was a mess. It criminally underserved its larger than life subjects. It was not a good film. And yet, of course, here we are.

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Sigh

When I called the question of “who the fuck is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?” existential in nature I was only half-joking. 90 anonymous, random reporters choosing the best movies and tv of the year. I mean who cares? They’re nobody. Objectively, unarguably nobody. So why do I care what they say? Hell, why does anybody? I mean if you got a group of thousands of American stay-at-home-moms together you could get them to declare Fifty Shades Freed the best film of the year.  And as much as they may act otherwise, the Hollywood Foreign Press members aren’t inherently better suited to make that call. Hell they might even be worse, with studios spending obscene amounts of money to personal advertise their movies to the voters in “For Your Consideration Campaigns”. Votes aren’t earned by quality, they’re bought and sold: the currency used to acquire the massive advertisements that are nominations and wins at the Golden Globes.

 

So why does it matter that Bohemian Rhapsody won a few damned Golden Globes? Why does the Golden Globes matter at all?  It doesn’t and it doesn’t. And yet the glitz and glamour shimmering off of an even below-average Golden Globes is something I just can’t peel my eyes off of. I’ll never understand the Golden Globes. In truth, I don’t think there is anything to understand. But dammit if I won’t watch it again next year.

 

 

Best Motion Picture — Animated

  • Incredibles 2

  • Isle of Dogs

  • Mirai

  • Ralph Breaks the Internet

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Original Score — Motion Picture

  • Marco Beltrami, A Quiet Place

  • Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs

  • Ludwig Göransson, Black Panther

  • Justin Hurwitz, FIRST MAN

  • Marc Shaiman, Mary Poppins Returns

Best Original Song — Motion Picture

  • “All the Stars,” Black Panther

  • “Girl in the Movies,” Dumplin’

  • “Requiem for a Private War,” A Private War

  • “Revelation,” Boy Erased

  • “Shallow,” A STAR IS BORN

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

  • Amy Adams, Vice

  • Claire Foy, First Man

  • Regina King, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

  • Emma Stone, The Favourite

  • Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

  • Mahershala Ali, GREEN BOOK

  • Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy

  • Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

  • Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  • Sam Rockwell, Vice

Best Screenplay — Motion Picture

  • Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

  • Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite

  • Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk

  • Adam McKay, Vice

  • Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, GREEN BOOK

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy

  • Christian Bale, VICE

  • Lin Manuel Miranda, Mary Poppins Returns

  • Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

  • Robert Redford, The Old Man & the Gun

  • John C. Reilly, Stan & Ollie

Best Picture — Foreign Language

  • Capernaum

  • Girl

  • Never Look Away

  • Roma

  • Shoplifters

Best Director — Motion Picture

  • Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

  • Alfonso Cuarón, ROMA

  • Peter Farrelly, Green Book

  • Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

  • Adam McKay, Vice

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy

  • Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns

  • Olivia Colman, THE FAVOURITE

  • Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

  • Charlize Theron, Tully

  • Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians

Best Picture — Comedy or Musical

  • Crazy Rich Asians

  • The Favourite

  • Green Book

  • Mary Poppins Returns

  • Vice

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama

  • Glenn Close, THE WIFE

  • Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

  • Nicole Kidman, Destroyer

  • Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  • Rosamund Pike, A Private War

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama

  • Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

  • Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

  • Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased

  • Rami Malek, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

  • John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman

Best Picture — Drama

  • Black Panther

  • BlacKkKlansman

  • Bohemian Rhapsody

  • If Beale Street Could Talk

  • A Star Is Born

 

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It’s Not the Masterpiece We Needed, but “Vice” Rises on the Power of its (Justified) Anger

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Christian Bale stars as Darth Vader in the newest Star Wars spin-off Dick Cheney in Vice

Director Adam Mckay’s burning hatred for former Vice President Dick Cheney is well deserved. No, even more than that it’s necessary. Painfully relevant to this very day, the atrocities committed by Cheney during the Bush administration and throughout his career are not deserving of an impartial narrator. They are not deserving of a “both sides” take that bleeds civility into the uncomfortable reality of the destruction of our country, an entire religion, and millions of lives abroad. And it is easy, with the current state of our country, to forget all that. When faced directly with the comical idiocracy of Trump, the Bush administration seems rather subdued, so naturally, approval ratings of Bush and his cronies have risen in recent years. After all, the explosions of Trump’s tantrums over twitter are more visible than the explosions of missiles thousands of miles away. So it is to McKay’s credit that Vice, which he wrote and directed, does not humanize Cheney or normalize the actions of the Republican party that has put greed and the pursuit of power over civil duty. Because Donald Trump did not happen in a vacuum, and while Cheney’s monotone drudgery, Bush’s southern frat-boy charm, and even Paul Ryan’s effervescent goodery don’t reflect the bombastic white-nationalism of The Donald, they sure as hell caused it.

 

And in my opinion, there are few filmmakers better suited for the task of telling the comedically horrifying life of Dick Cheney better than Adam McKay. The director of the phenomenal The Big Short, McKay, a veteran comedic filmmaker previously known for his more low-brow work with Will Ferrel, has of late shown an unparalleled ability to combine gut-busting humor with gut-wrenching political commentary. And again in Vice, although to a lesser extent than with The Big Short, through snappy dialogue, bait-and-switch trickery, and a gag a minute approach, McKay is able to make the horror unfolding on screen entertaining without having it lose its broiling infliction. Adam McKay’s fury towards Cheney and the Republican party is unmistakable, and as long as you, unlike Cheney, have a working, beating heart, you will feel it too.

 

But pure anger, as in all other things, is not enough here. To be clear having such strong emotions about the subject at hand is not the problem; the same unabashed disdain McKay showed in The Big Short towards the “villains” is similarly present and effective in Vice. Where the two movies differ, and where Vice so badly fails though, is in the story itself. Whereas in The Big Short McKay could use the story and analysis already present in author Michael Lewis’s book of the same name (Lewis is the masterful writer behind other widely famous non-fiction books like Moneyball and The Blind Side). Without that basic skeletal structure on which McKay could apply his signature flair, Vice is undercut by an extremely un-disciplined and poorly structured script that thrashes wildly at Cheney and the targets around him, while neglecting to dig much deeper than an opinion article one might have found in Vox.

 

And that’s a shame because even more so than the specifics of Cheney’s evil deeds, what matters most to us today is the how and the why that puts Cheney’s place in the world in context. A drunken hick slob from the backwaters of Wyoming when we meet Cheney (Christian Bale), McKay is far too comfortable sitting back with the audience and snickering at the Machiavellian sensibilities of Cheney and his wife as a snidely written Wikipedia summary detailing Cheney’s improbable rise to power whizzes by us. And boy does it seem improbable. A Yale drop-out with multiple DUI’s, Cheney, who admits to not being particularly bright, is somehow able to wrangle up an internship as a congressional aide for the true-talking asshat Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell). And from then until Clinton’s victory over the first Bush, it’s relatively easy sailing for Cheney as he racks up positions like Chief of Staff (the youngest ever) and Secretary of Defense. And then, never a very popular public figure, Cheney seems to return to the dirt from once he came (the movie has a fantastic gag about all this here).

 

This meteoric rise to power was, of course, more than just improbable. Yet Vice only sporadically pokes at the sickly secrets of negligence and privilege that conspired to push a mean old white man so far. Similarly Vice is unable to hone in on just what is making its subject tick. The strongest (and probably most correct) inference by the film is Cheney’s unquenchable thirst for power. Yet this is never shown to be a particularly conclusive point, as the notoriously private Cheney remains largely evasive from the film’s critical gaze. In his stead, it’s actually Cheney’s ambitious wife Lynne (played with fierce bravado by Amy Adams) that we get the clearest depiction of. Even in a weekly developed role, for his part, Christian Bale’s transformation into the heavily obese Cheney (which is a sight to behold) is all its hyped up to be. A guttural drawl and eyes void of any hint of a soul, Bale is the spitting image of ol’ Dick and he’s well on his way towards his 2nd Oscar victory.

 

The second half of the film depicts Cheney’s reign of terror in the White House and while it may be a rehash if you already lived it, it is nevertheless guaranteed to make your blood boil. It’s far more enthralling half, as freed from the need to understand Cheney’s place in the world McKay can light the movie aflame with the objective atrocity of Cheney’s administration. But in the end, emotional catharcism these days (the kind elicited by “infallibly” terrible Republican actions) is so easy to come by that it makes what Vice offers frustratingly common in comparison. A comedic biopic of the life of Dick Cheney is the perfect opportunity to expose the societal and governmental failures that lead to the rapidly crumbling marble columns of the Old World Order. But Vice is by and large unable to do that. I’m not saying the film completely neglects to try: there are nods to the reactionary atmosphere of the 80s and early 90s and the deceitful messaging of the Republican party that belied their extreme messages into the mainstream. But ultimately, as much as Adam McKay and Vice despise Cheney, they are impervious to the far more destructive forces lurking just below the surface.

B-

A Dry Script Nearly Drowns “Aquaman”, but Director James Wan Helps the Film Make Waves

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Spectacular action scenes are enough to save Aquaman from itself.

The earth in the newest DC entry, Aquaman, is split between two polar opposite worlds: the ocean and the land. Far beneath the white crests of waves lie the people of Atlantis — an extremely advanced group of super-humans gifted with fantastical abilities and a burning hate of the polluting land-dwellers (us). The threat of war is imminent, and it is up to our hero Arther Curry, the titular Aquaman (played with machismo charisma by Jason Momoa), who is a man of both land and sea, to save the day.

 

In many ways, a very similar problem plagues the film itself. Aquaman is the tale of two halves: The first is an unarguably spectacular display of action which is in large part thanks to the film’s director James Wan. If that name sounds familiar to you it should, because Wan is the man who single-handedly saved the horror genre with his work on the likes of The Conjuring and Saw franchises. His brilliance as a director is again on full display in Aquaman, as he uses his unparalleled command of thrills and visual artistry to create intricately crafted action scenes that are better than any super-hero movie in recent memory.

 

The second however, is an often embarrassingly bad screenplay (by a trio of writers that I won’t bother to name) that made watching the more dialogue-heavy scenes feel like a vat of molten-lava was slowly being poured over me. Searing with burning fury, it slowly yet inescapably pressed me into my brumal chair and hardened in every orifice it slithered its way into as I choked for any hint of non-existent air. To be clear the script was not bad because it was cheesy or insufferable in its soapy tone –that actually would have been very much appreciated and in fact very fitting for the mock-Shakespearian style Aquaman was aiming for. It failed because of its rote… nothingness.

 

It was boring. And for a popcorn superhero flick that’s an inexcusable offense.

 

The story of Aquaman is colored weirdly, yes, with a world populated by evil mermaids, deadly water guns, and talking crabs, but its essence is tried and true. Aquaman is the chosen one, and along with the help of his love interest Princess Mera (Amber Heard is left to struggle in this poorly written role) and a handful of other maternal and paternal help (Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe both make appearances), he must find the mystical lost trident and defeat the evil King Orm (Patrick Wilson) to prevent all-out war and take his place as king of Atlantis. It’s funky, but the gluttony of royal and inter-familial drama in a visually beautiful environment lends itself to a lot of fun. But while James Wan is able to capitalize to the fullest extent possible, a painfully dry script (ugghhh) is barren of the jokes and over-the-top monologues the film so desperately needed, and this leads to long stretches that are unable to take advantage of Momoa’s committed performance and are damn-near unwatchable.

 

But all that being said, I can’t specifically not recommend this movie. A far cry from the horrors of Justice League and quite a bit more enjoyable than the first two similarly constructed Thor movies, so much of Aquaman was ultimately just too sensational to witness for me to dislike the film. I mean how could I? Still seared into my head a few days later are the epic spectacles of thousands of sharks smashing into legions of talking giant crabs. Still, I see red lasers pepper the sky around acrobatic gods that smash tridents as they tumble through the war-torn sea. James Wan is nothing short of a master artist in his ability to evoke Van Gho in his never-ending palette of colors that swirl around mythical creatures with the awesome style of a work by Emanuel Luetze.

 

So yes, the film is a disappointment.

 

Yes, it’s a waste of potential.

 

Yes, DC is gonna have to hire a screenwriter one of these days if they wanna challenge Marvel.

 

But while Aquaman doesn’t make the splash it should have, James Wan’s striking command-of-craft is still enough to keep Momoa’s godly sculpted head afloat.

B-

“First Man” Delivers the Chilling Tragedy of Neil Armstrong and a Warning of the Cost of Success

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More than a legend, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was a man.

As you may or may not remember, the hugely anticipated release of Oscar-winner Damian Chazelle’s new film First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, was overshadowed upon its release by a petty culture war of sorts. I know, the never-ending barrage of combative news makes it difficult to recall any specific controversy (especially the ones that are the product of the tantrum-prone right) but for those who forgot, First Man came under scorched-earth attacks from the alt-right aghast that the film reportedly did not feature the planting of the American flag (and, I believe, due to a suspect lack of bald eagles wielding dual machine guns while swooping over the lunar surface). Chazelle, Gosling, and the film were decried as pushing an unpatriotic telling of America’s finest achievement and branded sjw scum.

Obviously, and not like most on the right would care anymore, there was a very conscientious vision driving the film’s presentation of its story and that vision was not just to subvert the minds of our vulnerable children with communist propaganda. No, for better and for worse First Man is not about the space race; it is not about the American glory nor ingenuity that would have been gushing from this movie if it had been made 20 years ago.

It is about Neil Armstrong.

It is about Neil Armstrong the broken father, not the golden-haired family man. It is about Neil Armstrong the soldier, not the astronaut. It is about Neil Armstrong the human, not the legend. When we gaze up in awe at our heroes, tracking their trials, tribulations and world-altering accomplishments, universally we neglect to see these people for who they are: people. That’s what makes First Man’s take on its protagonist so unique. The humanity behind its hero is not hidden or blithely exaggerated, it is the central takeaway of the film.

Starting with the death of Armstrong’s young daughter, each fallen friend and near-fatal catastrophe for Armstrong is not just some new obstacle to leap over and grow from. To him and his equally damaged wife Janet (a phenomenal Claire de Foy), these are frozen daggers that slice off bits and pieces of their humanity with every mindless swing. Armstrong is an abject professional; his singular dream of touching the night sky is magically endearing, but no man is built to withstand the cost of achieving such a vision. Ryan Gosling is known for playing characters whose slick tongues are matched only by their charismatically carved exterior, but in one of his best performances to date, Gosling smartly rejects that style in exchange for an unnervingly withdrawn pensiveness. The limited lines Armstrong does get are spoken with a frigid mid-western draw–his stoic demeanor betraying just how far adrift he is from the normalcy we expect him to inhabit. Because as much as we may try to look away, the truth remains: there is a human cost to space travel, just as there is a human cost to anything with a prize so mighty and a danger so great. The story of First Man is not a story about that prize; it is about that cost.

Yet while the frigid dismay that permeates the Armstrong household threatens at times to strip First Man unnecessarily bare, it is thanks to Damien Chazelle’s masterful direction that the film is able to inject the hope and intimacy needed for such a personal story. The slight wobble of vivid, greyed close-ups is scored with a magnificent lullaby of awe (Justin Hurwitz who worked on Chazelle’s previous two films writes the best score of any movie this year), creating a mesmerizing atmosphere that perfectly places the travails of the Armstrongs in context and builds a movie that is as stifling in its portrayal of heartbreak as it is breathtaking in its portrayal of the search for something bigger.

 

On the flip side though, what holds First Man from matching its revolutionary ambitions with equally grandiose quality is a frustrating lack of understanding concerning what that “something bigger” is. The script, by the writer of Spotlight and The Post (Josh Singer), gives remarkable insight into the personal cost of success, yet it is unable to comprehend what that cost is for. The practical and existential meaning behind our race to the moon (or maybe lack thereof) are lost on Singer, and it becomes increasingly difficult as the movie goes on to reconcile Armstrong’s unshakeable drive with the indomitable tragedy that surrounds him when we don’t know the purpose of his sacrifices.

Of course, it’s unfair to characterize First Man’s struggle with comprehending the goal of space travel as a unique failing. Beyond movies and popular culture, this question has dogged our missions to space from the launch of Sputnik and continues to confound us to this very day. Until we figure it out though, First Man serves as an exorbitantly stark reminder that as long as people’s lives are on the line, the cost of success is more than just zeroes and media narratives.

A-

“First Reformed” is an Urgent Must-Watch

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Ethan Hawke is remarkable as a man stuck in the shadow of humanity’s reprehension.

What is God’s place on a dying earth?

 

This is essentially the question at the core of First Reformed. After being confronted head-on with the perilous threat climate change poses to our planet, a reverend struggles to keep his faith in a God that is nowhere to be seen. But as First Reformed well knows, God means more to people than the old man who pears down on us from the heavens up high. Rather it is an embodiment of us. Our fears our hopes. Our savageness our reason. Our faults and our salvation. Whether or not we always care to admit it, the religious beliefs and philosophies we call our own are all directly a product of our, very personal, response to these simple internal battles.

 

Directed and written by Paul Schrader, First Reformed gives this pitched tug-of-war between hope and despair a scarily relevant 21st-century spin in one of the best and most urgent films of the year. Schrader, who also made Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, is no stranger to stories chronicling the downhill spiral of a man, and in First Reformed, he again turns to what has worked in the past with the tale of Reverend Ernst Tuller’s (Ethan Hawke) fall down the zealotic rabbit hole. It is a career performance from Hawke and one that has somehow wormed its way into the Oscar conversation nearly a year after its release because he dares to be emotionally compromised rather than just carry himself with a dreary sadness and punch-drunk anger. Contradiction and complication create the essence of First Reformed and Hawke’s ability to juggle disparate emotions provides the catalyzing ingredient.

 

A former military chaplain and family man, Tuller is now the minister of the ancient First Reform Church in upstate New York. A small and scarcely attended Dutch reform church that is presently little more than a tourist attraction, it is owned and operated by the near-bye Abundant Life Megachurch. Tuller appears on the surface as a man of faith and great intelligence, and indeed he is, but we soon glimpse flashes of his tragic past that have left him drowning in an unmitigated sorry. Isolated, sick, and downing handles of whiskey every chance he gets, Tuller has reached a tipping point of sorts. And then, after answering the pleas of a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), everything changes. The women, purposely named Mary, is pregnant with her husband Michael’s (Philip Ettinger) baby and Michael is none too pleased. A radical environmentalist, Michael fears for the world the baby will grow up in — a world swallowed hole by global warming and human negligence. And as much as Tuller tries to convince Michael otherwise, some of that fear rubs off on him and soon Tuller begins to spiral. 

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Beauty and hope lie in reach if only Tuller would reach out for it.

The term “radicalization” is thrown around freely in the news and throughout popular culture, yet normally its scope and context are frustratingly limited. Radicalization means brown people, Muslims, Isis, and maybe the occasional Nazi. It is an unjustified insanity with little basis in reality –an inexplicable cancer of naivety and anger. First Reformed’s genius lies in how it shows just how wrong this concept is. Tuller’s increasing extremism is just the flip side of the coin from the neglect shown by the corrupt Abundant Life Megachurch and its leader Jeffers (played with surprisingly resonant empathy by Cedric the Entertainer). None of the characters throughout the film are driven solely by ideology, but rather a mix personal factors that lead to the destruction of their world or their bodies just as often as they lead to their felicity and sense of beauty.

 

The duality of man is not a revolutionary concept, yet rarely has it been explored in film with such adept grace and relevance as it is in First Reformed. The balancing of hope and despair and action and caution will determine the survival of our society just as it has over the entirety of human history.

 

We better be paying attention.

A

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Rises on the Power of its Simplicity and Honesty

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Richard E. Grant and Melisa McCarthy are every bit deserving of their future Oscar nominations in the poignant character study “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

On its surface the story of Lee Israel is the story of a devious criminal mastermind; a literary forger who used her shockingly adept literary voice to impersonate a number of high profile authors in the form of personal letters and notes, which she then sold to every auctioneer in New York. But this is not the story Can You Ever Forgive Me? presents.

 

At least not really.

 

Starring the perennially criminally underappreciated Mellisa Mcarthy as the middling biographer Israel, the film forgoes the thrill and nuclear destruction normally associated with criminal enterprise for a much sadder look at the tragedy of Israel’s relationship with herself and the world around her. In many ways, this approach bears a strong resemblance to the style of the last film I reviewed (The Old Man and the Gun) in that each film rejects the typical bigger than life depiction of crimes for a noticeably subdued mediation on their context in the grander scheme of things.

 

In Lee Israel’s case, it is her commercial failings that have pushed her to the edge of the law. A moderately successful writer of biographies on (somewhat) important women, Israel’s work is increasingly out of touch with a society that craves the instant thrill delivered by the page-turners of writers like Tom Clancy. And it doesn’t help that Israel is, well, kind of a dick. Luckily Mcarthy’s lively performance and some quick-witted writing make the journey with Israel bearable (and sometimes quite enjoyable) but to the literary community and her agent (Jane Curtain), this behavior is not exactly helping to make the right inroads. As Israel’s agent reminds her “You can be an asshole when you’re rich”. So deep in debt, a sick cat in tow, and with no new book deal in sight, Israel’s discovery of the gold lined world of literary treasures requires little thought by her before she jumps headfirst in.

 

Israel is a drowning woman swimming towards the monstrous storms clouds above the horizon in hopes of rescue on the other side, and yet during her journey, there is a strange absence of the fiery tension of a fight with death. Instead, we are left with all the numb confusion that a dead-end in life is so good at eliciting.

 

And this is absolutely the right approach to take.

 

Directed by Marielle Heller (who also co-wrote with Nicole Holofcener), after choosing a much more “artsy” direction with her first film Diary of a Teenage Girl, Will You Ever Forgive Me? smartly takes the attention away from the more bombastic elements of Israel’s true story in order to focus its efforts on a nuanced portrait of a woman inebriated by fear and loathing. There is never any doubt that Israel is a wicked smart woman with immense talent, the sly glint of Mcarthy’s eyes proves this much, but her isolating decisions have boxed her into little more than a cautionary tale about the perils of disconnecting from your reality. She is the commercially unsuccessful version of Hemingway, and it is to Heller’s credit that Can You Ever Forgive Me? confronts this utterly unromantic truth head-on. Surprisingly, the film’s decidedly un-ambitious nature is its greatest boon here, allowing Heller to cut right to the heart of Israel’s brokenness. A timidly melodic piano score and a stale coffee color scheme are all that is needed to suck the audience into Israel’s shoes and trap them in a soul-suckingly hopeless prison of her own creation.

 

But of course Israel’s situation wasn’t hopeless and it is Heller’s ability to steer the film clear of rote art-house cliche that brings heart to the movie. Israel’s partner in crime and new friend Jack (played with a breathtaking gusto by Richard Grant) shares Israel’s hard-drinking and lone wolf ways. Yet despite being faced with a similarly poor way of life, Jack’s melodic speech and joyous ways show an alternative and Israel’s musical rapport with the man offers hope that she has this change in her.

 

If only Israel can learn to forgive herself.

 

A-

“The Old Man and the Gun” is a Decidedly Understated Take on a Fascinating True Story

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Robert Redford gets a fitting farewell as the real-life bank-robber Forest Tucker

What struck me the most watching The Old Man and the Gun, a film that will most likely be one of the many vying for awards for the next few months, was just how old everything felt. Granted, I came to the movie expecting this to some extent; the trailer –a beautifully done folksy hymn– set the stage for me by introducing Robert Redford’s swan song performance as the endearingly polite Forest Tucker. The titular “Old Man”, Forest Tucker was immortalized in a New Yorker article for, you guessed it, his unbelievable career as a professional bank robber who worked well into his 70’s. The subdued pensiveness of the trailer was merely a taste though of what my experience watching the film had in store for me.

Even beyond the confines of the flickering screen, just the act of walking into the theater felt like stepping through a rip in time and space into the past. A late Friday afternoon showing, I must have been the youngest person in the theater by a good 30 years. And perhaps unsuprisingly considering I was watching the movie in one of Berkely’s many rundown movie theaters, much in the style of old-timey Nickelodians the screen itself was barely bigger than the slideshow projection you’d expect to find in a high school biology class. The size of the room matched accordingly and I half expected the ringing-bounce of a nearby piano to begin playing and consume the room with its joyous score.

 

Despite being written and directed by a 37-year-old in David Lowery (the creator of the similarly existential A Ghost Story), The Old Man and the Gun continued this tone with a remarkably quiet film that, for better and worse, injects the film with a feeling that is perhaps most reminiscent of a dying men silently reflecting on the nature of his life. The intentionally blurry and neutral colored portrait of Tucker’s last stand when combined with the wrinkled faces of Hollywood stars from yesteryear and wrapped in a ballad of rhythmic jazz and guitar heavy folk songs offers a sweat yet definitively older feeling movie.

 

How much this succeeds in creating an enjoyable film, I think, may be up to the viewer.

 

For me there are many moments, especially towards the beginning, where this laid-back attitude bleeds too much into the creation of the scenes themselves, resulting in stretches that drag largely due to their lack of urgency. As a result, neither the emotional catharsis nor the story-tale joy needed for me to truly love this movie is present. In many ways, though it feels like these faults were consciousness artistic decisions and that my problems with the movie may be more just a matter of taste compared to the other movies I’ve reviewed this year. This is because, above all else, Lowery’s singular vision is not meant to be a riveting bank heist movie or an epic treatise on the human condition but rather an inquisitive look at a man Lowery finds interesting.

 

Yes, Mr. Tucker is an old man that robs banks and runs from the police, but noticeably absent from The Old Man and The Gun are the usual blood splatters and meticulously crafted plans that often define heist movies. Even Tucker’s gun is purely for aesthetic and not practical use. And while Tucker’s peculiar work choice and heroic yet uncompromising mentality may invite epic monologues on the purpose of humanity, Lowery notably maneuvers his ship away from these more expected ambitions as well.

 

In their place lies a simple workmanlike ode to a man doing what he loves because it is all he knows.

 

In fitting fashion Robert Redford gives possibly his last performance in a role that is understated yet fully Oscar-worthy not for its for exuberant adherence to method acting — which often belies the best actor race — but rather for its honesty. Neither objectively bad or good, Tucker is a nice man who makes decisions which bring with them a slew of negative consequences for him and those around him, yet at the same time, there is a sense of joy and purpose that he derives from his work that is deeply enviable. Even beyond Tucker’s whimsical fairytale though, the characters that surround him are also deeply reflective of this theme. Tucker’s newfound lover Jewel (played with a warmly iron grace by Sissy Spacek) is fiercely resistant to giving up the family farm she can no longer afford because she loves living there so much. Meanwhile, Tucker’s adversary Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), the police officer tracking Tucker, starts off as a tired and sullen man newly celebrating his 40th birthday as he wonders where his years have gone. But Tucker’s exploits slowly convince Hunt to take pride in his honest police work and loving family — the two things that, for better or worse, define the story of his life.

 

In our era of blockbuster-filmmaking built on extracting the most bang for the buck, a film like The Old Man and the Gun is very unique indeed for its willingness to take such a melancholic look at a fantastical real-life story. It’s not an exceptional film, but this is, to an extent, the entire point. The beautiful thing about Forest Tucker is not that he’s some ageless Sundance Kid that never stopped robbing banks, but rather that he never stopped doing what he knew and loved. And while it may not always be pretty for Tucker and those who share his creed, The Old Man and the Gun has a wry admiration for those who strive for a life honestly lived and a story well told.

B+