This is a nice, fat, juicy week to tide y’all over until after finals week, because I don’t think I’ll be able to watch very much while studying. Ha, who am I kidding, I can always find time for movies. We have four this week, a couple of which are new releases, plus a video game thingy you don’t have to read.
Nov 24: Marriage Story (Cinéma Moderne)
Noah Baumbach is too close.
He’s always made movies based loosely off his personal experiences, and I adore his movies because I can tell how much they mean to him. Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale are my two favourites of his, and they feel the most like his stories. But Baumbach, despite him saying otherwise in this article, is too close to the subject of divorce.
The film is two hours and fifteen minutes, about 30 to 45 minutes longer than his movies tend to be. His movies are all incredibly tight and function within the 90 minute timeframe best specifically because of his filmmaking style: He doesn’t like plots, he just loves characters. He understood that, and worked within that constraint perfectly until Marriage Story. I don’t know if Netflix gave him more free reign on this project or if he just decided this story was worthy of an extra handful of minutes and fought for it, but regardless, it does not work. There are moments of pure boredom in Marriage Story, moments that make me think Noah Baumbach is so caught up in the process of divorce that he perceives it as more interesting than it actually is.
Unfortunately, that isn’t my only problem with Marriage Story. The organic, witty dialogue that makes Noah Baumbach one of my favourite writer/directors is for the most part replaced with what I can only describe as sitcom humour. Every single character who isn’t Adam Driver or Scarlett Johannsen is inexplicably acting in an offbeat sitcom and while it started out quirky and funny, it quickly becomes grating and distracting. Also, Julie Hagerty, my god, I love you in Airplane! and that one episode of New Girl but what the hell are you doing?! Same with the woman who plays Elizabeth in New Girl, why are they just straight up bad in this movie? I’m baffled by so many of the decisions Baumbach makes, and I don’t understand why he felt the need to shake up his already mature and fleshed out formula.
There are good things here. Driver and Scarjo are fantastic as always, and some of the conversations between them are well written even if they do drag on too long. The child actor who plays their son is surprisingly decent, considering child actors are the absolute worst 99% of the time. Laura Dern is fine as well, but she’s playing a character indistinguishable from Renata Klein, her Big Little Lies character, which was incredibly distracting. Every good aspect of Marriage Story has a caveat, and that makes this review even more frustrating than it already was considering how much I love Baumbach. I don’t like not liking Marriage Story.
Nov 25: Inside Llewyn Davis (Prime Video)
It seems like this was the sleeper pick near the top of a lot of people’s best films of the decade lists, and I see why now. It follows the always brilliant Oscar Isaac playing a broke folk musician in the 60s as he meanders New York looking for work, lodging, and some meaning in his life. Strangely, this feels more like a Baumbach movie than Marriage Story does. The dreary, melancholic atmosphere is oddly charming and endearing, and the film’s sense of humour serves to make the moments of deep sadness that much more effective. The ending is a thinker, and while at first I was turned off by the idea (that I won’t spoil), it has grown on me, and I appreciate its ambiguously depressing connotation.
Nov 27: Girl, Interrupted (Netflix)
I have very little to say about Girl, Interrupted. It’s a decent movie with a surprisingly great performance from Angelina Jolie and a usually great one from a young Winona Ryder. It’s just…decent. I’m entirely ambivalent. It’s James Mangold’s breakout film, I guess? Is that an interesting enough tidbit to merit finishing this review?
Nov 28: Katana Zero (Nintendo Switch)
I got home from my first final and finished this entire game in one sitting. Katana Zero is quality over quantity, and while that works perfectly for its gameplay, the story suffers ever so slightly. You play as a contract killer with, you guessed it, a katana, living in a beautiful pixel art post-war future. Your therapist gives you various assignments, as well as a daily dose of some mysterious drug, then sends you on your way to kill a bunch of folks. It’s effectively Hotline Miami if Hotline Miami were a side-scrolling melee focused game. My only problem is that the story never really takes off. Interesting characters are introduced and plot intricacies are slowly revealed, but when the final twist happens and all we get is a “to be continued,” I feel like I’ve been robbed of a proper climax. I much prefer the cryptic, almost incomprehensible plot of Hotline Miami to this somewhat unsatisfying conclusion but hey, at least it’s better than Hotline Miami 2.
Nov 29: Juno (Crave)
I’ve been hard on Jason Reitman before, and for good reason. Up in the Air is up there on my list of worst movies I’ve ever seen, and since I’ve never seen anything else of his, I decided that I hate him. Ain’t it funny, then, that Juno might just be the newest member of the top 10 family.
Everything about Juno is perfect. Diablo Cody’s writing makes for one of the tightest, funniest, and most naturally moving scripts to ever grace a screen, and she’d never even written anything film-related before. Ellen Page takes all the brilliance of the script and translates it into the quintessential quirky performance; Juno is offbeat and alienating at times, but mature and relatable when she needs to be. JK Simmons plays Juno’s father who is introduced early on as a war vet, so I expected the traditional drill sergeant asshole who would demonize her when he finds out she’s pregnant at 16, but instead he’s a kind, understanding man. Same goes for her step mother, Allison Janney, another character archetype often portrayed as nasty who is instead a loving and supportive influence in Juno’s life. Juno is just trying to get by as a pregnant teen, and everyone is doing their best to help her when they can.
The prospective adoptive parents she meets with, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, are such fantastic characters. From the second you meet them it’s obvious that they aren’t right for each other but don’t know it yet. [Spoilers] The friendship that develops between Bateman’s character and Juno is somewhat worrying but ultimately important in order for her to realize that Bleeker (Michael Cera) is doing his best in an impossible situation and she still loves him. Garner gives such a subtly beautiful performance, and I don’t always like her very much. That final scene nearly made me cry, and for me you may as well consider that crying. I never thought the words “If you’re still in, I’m still in” would elicit such emotion from me. Juno is a beautiful movie, and I loved every single second of it. Jason Reitman, I owe you an apology.
Nov 30: Knives Out (Theatre)
Rian Johnson is arguably still in the infancy of his career, making him an interesting case to follow. While I like Looper far more than I probably should, I hate Star Wars Episode VIII, and since I’ve never seen his first film, Brick, RJ is a complete wildcard. With two films on opposite sides of the spectrum, Knives Out was the determining film in terms of how I feel about Rian. unfortunately, Knives Out falls somewhere right in the middle, leaving me with no real answer.
Knives Out is an homage to Agatha Christie mysteries, and it wears its inspiration on its sleeve. It has a massive cast of A-listers all packed into a creaky mansion owned by the late Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the victim of this murder mystery. Daniel Craig investigates each of the Thrombeys, as well as Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse who is considered family. Though I anticipated an ensemble-style film, Knives Out curiously decides to make Marta the protagonist, a strange choice for the genre. As the early twists unravel, RJ’s decision to focus on Marta becomes clearer, though by the end I couldn’t help but feel as though the choice fundamentally undermined the entire point of a whodunnit. I know this movie just came out, but I can’t share my full thoughts without major spoilers, so this is a nice long warning.
I never had a doubt that Ransom (Chris Evans) did it, and it’s not because I’m some super-sleuth. RJ spends far too much time with Ransom and Marta, to the point that the other family members all blur together and become one big suspect. The first act introduces their potential motivations to get the audience to consider them individual suspects, but then proceeds to never implicate them for a single moment during the rest of the mystery. They’re all entertaining and funny, but never suspicious. Ransom and Marta are the only actual suspects, and I knew it couldn’t possibly be Marta. Why? Because of the scene where Toni Collette and Don Johnson argue about immigration and Trump. See, Marta’s mother is an illegal immigrant, and would get deported if it ever came out that she had accidentally killed Harlan (which she kinda did, as is established pretty early). Instead of building character with Toni and Don’s argument, RJ inadvertently reveals his own opinions, and makes it obvious that Marta being the one behind it all would undermine RJ’s personal politics. How would it look if the immigrant was the bad guy? Not so liberal. And so that leaves us with Ransom, the only other possible suspect. I didn’t know how he did it, making the reveal at least somewhat interesting, but it was ultimately rather unsatisfying and poorly set up. I’d like to clarify, I’m very liberal myself, and have no problem with politics of this sort in film. But when politics deobfuscates the film’s plot, maybe you should consider checking it at the door.
Even though the mystery of this murder mystery is lacking in execution, Knives Out is still an entertaining movie. It functions far better as a comedy, like Clue if Clue took itself more seriously. Daniel Craig’s Southern drawl may be kind of awful, but it’s hilarious to hear him attempt it, and watching the rest of the cast interact with this weirdo is consistently funny. A moment at the very end might be one of the best gags of 2019, though I won’t spoil it here. Overall, Knives Out is competent but tunnel visions, making for a fun but disappointingly hollow experience.
This week’s shoutout goes to Vampire’s Kiss. I reviewed it a few months ago, but I feel the need to remind people that they need to watch Vampire’s Kiss to understand the exact moment where good and bad cease to exist and chaos is the only tangible concept.