At Eternity’s Gate(11/25/2018)

It’s pretty widely agreed that 2007 was an amazing year for film.  It was a year that gave us such modern classics as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and on a more personal level it was the year I began writing full movie reviews habitually.  One movie that gets lost in discussions of about Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a smaller movie called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  That film, about the internal life of a man suck unable to move any part of his body aside form one eyelid following a massive stroke was nonetheless one of the year’s best.  Though that movie was in the French language it was actually directed by an American.  Specifically it was directed by a guy named Julian Schnabel, who had directed two films previously but never to this much acclaim and it felt like with this movie a master had finally emerged.   And then nothing.  Schnabel made another movie three years later called Miral which was critically derided and then nothing for the next eight years.  This delay may have had more than a little to do with Schnabel’s other and perhaps primary career as a fine art painter who has by all accounts produced several museum quality paintings and works of physical art.  But now Schnabel has returned and he’s now made a film about the life of a painter from a different time and place with At Eternity’s Gate.

The film looks at the adult life of Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) beginning when he had already assembled a fairly decent oeuvre of paintings but hasn’t gotten any real money or success for his trouble.  His mental problems are already apparent but he does have the undying devotion of his brother Theo Van Gogh (Rupert Friend) whose moral and financial support has allowed him to remain a professional artist.  Much of the movie concerns an extended trip he made to Arles, France in order to paint under a different kind of light than what he was seeing in Paris.  There he becomes something of a town pariah because of his occasionally anti-social behavior but does have a few friends like his landlord Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner) and he’s also visited by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).  From there we see him continue to struggle with his mental problems while also continually making iconic paintings right up until the end.

Confession: I do not know that much about art history, at all.  Truthfully I can barely tell a Monet from a Renoir, but Van Gogh is a little bit of an exception, when I see one of his paintings I can tell, in part because of his technique of making the paint sort of stand out from the canvas.  I also knew some of the broad strokes of his life story from here and there, in part because there have actually been a number of movies made about him including Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas in the central role and there was Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo and just last year there was the animated film Loving Vincent which used his signature art style to look at his life story.  It’s probably not too hard to guess why so many filmmakers want to tell this story; presumably they see something of themselves in the struggling misunderstood artist even though all of these filmmakers are more mentally stable and successful in their time than Van Gogh ever was during his lifetime.  It’s also a meaty role for actors who get to both imitate a famous face and explore the depths of undiagnosed mental illness.

This time around Van Gogh is played by Willem Dafoe, which is a casting choice that makes sense given that he’s a red haired guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh’s self-portraits but also kind of doesn’t make sense given that Van Gogh died at 37 and Dafoe is almost twice that age at this point.  That age issue isn’t overly apparent while watching the movie and Dafoe is quite strong in the role.  Some of the best parts are the movie are the scenes where Van Gogh is relatively calm and starts talking about his various philosophies of art and life.  During these scenes Dafoe reminded me a bit of his scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ where he was struggling to explain his spiritual angst.  But maybe the fact that he sounds like Jesus is part of the problem.  Van Gogh was not a kind and cuddly man, in fact he was so off-putting to the people of Arles that they passed a petition to have him barred from the city.  His mental problems were severe and noticeable and the movie in many ways seems to be a little too in love with the guy to really look at the depths of them.

Really though whatever complaints I have about the movie have less to do with its take on Van Gogh and more to do with its pacing and general inconsistency.  In format the movie is basically a traditional biopic: it looks at the events of the artist’s last years more or less in chronological order and without any sort of gimmick or anything, on paper at least.  However the movie does play in some odd ways at times.  Occasionally it just sort of diverges from its plot to sort of watch Van Gogh sort of walk through nature and observe things.  It’s an arty touch, but I’m not sure it really works here and just sort of hurts the pacing. Other parts just kind of feel like boring and kind of stilted biopic fare.  But every time the movie was losing me it would do something to win me back.  It will include an interesting conversation or depict some key moment in Van Gogh’s life in an interesting way and I’ll be back on board.  Something like a third of the movie didn’t really work for me, a third of it worked quite well, and another third was neutral and that probably ultimately speaks to how episodic it is.  When I left the movie after seeing it I was pretty comfortable giving it a pass but it’s been a week since then and a lot of it has already kind of slipped from my mind.  It’s not a terrible or even particularly bad movie but it does seem to be a rather inessential one given how many other Van Gogh movies are out there and how little this really seems to be adding.  If you’re only going to see one recent Van Gogh I might even go so far as to say you’re better off going with that Loving Vincent thing, which at least had a cool visual style.

**1/2 out of Five

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Green Book(11/18/2018)

If there’s one movie that was done no favor by winning an Academy Award it was Crash, and if there was another movie that was done no favor by winning that award it was probably Driving Miss Daisy.  Where Crash was criticized for what it was Driving Miss Daisy was criticized for what it wasn’t, and what it wasn’t was Do the Right Thing.  In a vacuum Driving Miss Daisy is fairly inoffensive; it’s the story of a decades long friendship between two older people from very different backgrounds who overcome their prejudices and come to respect each other over time.  A generous reading is that it’s telling white people that we’re not so different, a less generous reading is that it’s telling black people to stop making so much trouble and maybe white people will treat them better.  Any other year the Academy might not have gotten any shit for rewarding a movie like that but they decided to give it Best Picture in 1989, the same year that Spike Lee released his widely beloved masterpiece Do the Right Thing, a film with a much more challenging and provocative take on race.  That movie failed to even garner a Best Picture nomination and the symbolism of ignoring Lee’s film in favor of a movie about a “nice” black guy was not lost on observers and a controversy was born that culminated in Kim Basinger calling the Academy out on their own show.  We’ve spent the last thirty years scoffing at that choice and yet these “friendly” movies about race relations remain an easy sell around the world whether it’s in the form of something like The Intouchables or Victoria & Abdul and now there seems to be massive Oscar buzz around another movie about a black person and a white person coming to learn that they’re not that bad while on the road, could history be repeating itself?

Set in 1962, Green Book follows a guy named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson), a streetwise New York Italian who works as a bouncer the legendarily mobbed up nightclub The Copacabana.  After an incident Lip finds himself out of work for two months while the Copacabana is closed for renovations.  Fortunately for him he receives a tip that there may be a job opening as a driver for a pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali).  Shirley is a classically trained pianist, but also an African American living a profoundly racist society and out of a sort of need to face the wider world he’s booked a tour of the Deep South, where he plans to play a variety of concert halls and private shows at the estates of wealthy socialites.  Of course a black man touring the south at this time faced a great deal of danger, so he was in part looking for a driver and in part looking for someone who could defuse situations and if need be act as a straight-up bodyguard.  Tony Lip seems to be what he’s looking for and hires him, but as the road trip begins it was clear that the two would have personality clashes.  Shirley is a wealthy and sophisticated man of refinement while Lip is a crude and uneducated guy from the block, and the two frequently bicker over these differences, but as the film moves on the two start to realize they can trust each other.

Green Book was directed by, of all people, Peter Farrelly.  Farrelly has until now been part of a duo with his brother Bobby Farrelly and the two have become synonymous with broad lowbrow mainstream comedy.  This was the duo behind Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Me Myself & Irene and they generally didn’t stray too far from the tone that made them famous even though they had not seen much real success at all since the turn of the millennium.  Now he seems to have separated from his sibling and is trying to “go legit” so to speak and show he can make something a bit more serious.  And to his credit I don’t think his direction here is much of a problem at all.  He’s clearly a seasoned professional and shoots the film with traditional Hollywood efficiency.  His sense of humor also isn’t completely put to waste here either.  I would never call the movie a comedy exactly but given that it is essentially a buddy road movie there is some of that usual dynamic where the two sort of drive each other crazy before coming to like each other and this definitely leads to some comic relief that serves the movie they’re making well enough.  He also gets some pretty good performances out of his leads: Tony Lip is a bit of a walking goomba stereotype but Mortenson makes it work and keeps him believable while Mahershala Ali manages to make his character seem endearingly snobby rather than the one dimensional guy he could have been.

So before I get mean about this, let it be known that I think this is a perfectly competent movie, one that people will enjoy watching if they catch it on HBO on some random evening and which has a message that in and of itself is largely inoffensive.  Here’s the thing though, this is late 2018 and pretty much every movie that comes out around this time inevitably gets looked at in terms of Award season and by extension in terms of legacy and in terms of the constant tug of war over the soul of cinema, and in those terms I have some major problems with this movie being celebrated.  For one thing, the movie is kind of predictable.  If you’ve seen enough movies you have a pretty good idea of what these characters’ arcs are going to be and it also hits certain moments in a rather false way.  When the film introduces subplots like Shirley helping Lip write letters home you can pretty easily guess how it’s going to pay off and the film’s sense of irony about Lip being the less refined of the pair are handled in increasingly obvious ways.  Kris Bowers’ score is also part of the problem as it’s a very standard issue work that constantly intrudes and tries to really turn the emotion up to eleven in some really phony ways.

So the movie is kind of corny in and of itself, but then we have to deal with the way the movie addresses race, which in many ways seems rather basic.  It’s the kind of movie that seems to have been made for people who went to really conservative schools that never bothered to give even the most cursory of black history lessons.  Hell, even the characters at the center of the film seem oddly naïve about the world they live in.  The Shirley character was intentionally going on this tour in an attempt to face down Southern racism and Lip is a guy who may well have known the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas and yet the movie constantly has both of them suddenly turning into Pollyannas whenever they encounter a tailor that won’t let Shirley try on a suit or a sheriff that tries to enforce a sundown law.  These scenes don’t strike me as an honest portrayal of how these guys probably acted so much as they’re trying to shock modern audiences who somehow never watched many of the hundreds of other movies about the Jim Crow South that have been made in the past.  And that’s the problem with movies like these, they primarily only seek to show the wrongs of the silliest forms of discrimination of the past and frankly those are the easiest possible targets.

So what is the ultimate message of this supposed to be?  That people overcome their differences by getting to know each other better?  That is indeed the same damn message that Driving Miss Daisy was peddling back in 1989 and if it seemed kind of weak back then it’s certainly weak now.  These movies always operate under this simplistic assumption that racism was a problem in the South caused by dumb deplorables and that Lyndon Johnson fixed the problem and we know better now because individuals learned better and stopped being mean to each other.  Here and there this movie does at least suggest it knows better than that in little asides like when Shirley suggests to Lip after escaping a redneck bar that he probably wouldn’t have been treated much better at a bar back in Lip’s own neighborhood, but by the end when they’re actually being helped by a sheriff rather than hurt by one simply because they’ve gone far enough North really plays back into that old framework.  What’s more the movie ignores the larger systemic causes of oppression, the kinds of thing that no amount of Tony Lip learning to be nice to highly talented black men he finds himself befriending is going to fix.

Compare it to something like If Beale Street Could Talk, which is set a decade later and in the same city that is supposedly such a safe space for Shirley and you immediately realize how bullshit this framing is.  That is a movie about black families more or less being fed to the grinder by an uncaring criminal justice system, and while it’s certainly set in the past it’s still significantly more relevant to civil rights struggles that we’re still fighting today.  And there’s been no shortage of other movies about race relations made this year by black filmmakers like Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Sorry to Bother You, Monsters and Men, Black Panther, and of course a brand new movie by Spike Lee called Blackkklansman.  Those movies all have their pros and cons and none of them are on the level of Do The Right Thing but they all feel far more in touch with the politics of 2018 and most of them tell their stories in more creative and exciting ways as well.  And that’s why this movie kind of pisses me off.  I don’t begrudge anyone for enjoying it and I could see it having some value for elementary school kids or, like, grannies who are never going to understand something a little more confrontational than The Blind Side.  However, if you’re an adult (or an Academy member) the time has come to reach for something more than this kind comfort food.  Like Shirley says to Lip at one point: you can do better.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 11/28/2018 (New on Netflix Edition)

22 July (10/19/2018)

 

When I heard that Paul Greengrass was making a movie out of the 22 July Norwegian terrorist attacks I was excited but nervous.  Greengrass has managed to make some really powerful movies out of real life tragedy in the past like United 93 and Bloody Sunday but there were still any number of ways this could have been politically off or just in bad taste.  What I didn’t expect was for the film to be so mundane just as a piece of filmmaking.  Greengrass’ previous movies about national tragedies were constructed to more or less be feature length re-enactments of the events in question, that’s sort of what the first third of this movie is like as it follows the shooter carrying out his plan, but it lacks the same visceral feel of his other films.  Captain Phillips worked in large part because of the two personalities at its center and because there was a certain thrill in all the procedure of dealing with the situation.  United 93 lacked the personalities but still worked as a thriller in large part because you had a long time to sit with the passengers as they went through their ordeal and also because there would be incredible excitement once they started to fight back.  22 July has neither of these advantages; none of the victims have the gravitas of a Tom Hanks and the killer is cold and not even a little bit relatable like Barkhad Abdi was, and unlike United 93 there’s really not a lot of tension in the shooting spree as the victims are basically defenseless.  The film would then seem to be more like Bloody Sunday, but that movie gained a lot of power because it was about a very controversial moment in history and by recreating it the film was trying to get to the bottom of what happened and why.  There isn’t a similar mystery around the 22 July attack, it’s quite clear who did what and he was abundantly clear about why.

Greengrass seems to have known his usual approach wasn’t going to work this time so he adjusted into what is in many ways a more conventional movie that focused as much on the aftermath as on the event.  That section focuses on the trial of the shooter and is told from the perspective of the shooter’s highly conflicted lawyer and from a survivor of the shooting who is doing his best to overcome his injuries.  These scenes really do not play to Paul Greengrass’ strengths as a filmmaker and they’re also hampered a bit by the fact that everyone is being played by unknown Norwegian actors speaking English.  The sections with the lawyer are generally lacking in procedural detail, the film doesn’t really explain the points of Norwegian law that are at play (and some of them are indeed quite confusing), we only get the most cursory glance of the far-right world that inspired the killer and the lawyer isn’t really developed enough to get much of a deep dive into his conflict about taking this role in the trial.  The material with the surviving kid is frankly kind of cheesy.  I generally hate movies that are trying to be “inspirational” and a lot of this stuff feel more like the makings of a “movie of the week” than a hard hitting Paul Greengrass docudrama.  There are some interesting moments here and there.  The story is certainly topical and moments of the shooting sequence work better than others, but while watching it I couldn’t help but think “a documentary about this would be a lot better” and that’s never what you want to think when you’re watching a movie based on true events.

**1/2 out of Five

Shirkers (11/16/2018)

This personal documentary focuses in on a woman named Sandi Tan and discusses her youth in Singapore leading up to an attempt she made to make a French New Wave inspired movie with some friends and colleagues which was never finished because one of her friends named Georges Cardona stole all the footage and ran off without explanation.   From there the movie becomes something of a mystery/investigation type thing with Tan trying to figure out what happened to Cardona and why he took the footage.  Tan certainly seems like an interesting person who seems to have done some creative stuff in her youth and what we do end up seeing of the movie she was making does look kind of interesting.  I also like the tone she chose for this documentary, in part because she seems to keep things in perspective and tell her story in a fun and lighthearted way rather than trying to make it out to be some super serious injustice.

***1/2 out of Five

Hold the Dark (11/15/2018)

Jeremy Saulnier has emerged as one of the more promising young directors in recent years with Blue Ruin and Green Room (the “Color + four letter word that starts with R” films), two movies that I didn’t like as much as others but which were certainly made with a lot of skill.  With his third movie though I think the guy might have kind of struck out.  Hold the Dark, a film set in Alaska and following Jeffery Wright as a wolf expert who finds himself in the middle of some rather odd and rather violent hijinx seemingly caused by some kind of Native American wolf demon, certainly has some of the strong visual appeal that his previous films had but it’s story does not have the same simplicity.  Honestly I’m not exactly sure what is going on in this movie for a lot of its runtime.  There are certainly individual scenes in it that work and it has an interesting cast and it looks like a good movie, but the script is an utter mess that feels like it never really came together they way its makers intended.

** out of Five

Filmworker (11/24/2018)

As someone who has a habit of looking up all things related to Stanley Kubrick the name Leon Vitali is not entirely new to me.  Vitali was Kubrick’s assistant and right-hand man during the latter part of his career, he acted in Barry Lyndon and continued on in behind the scenes worth throughout the shooting of The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut and after Kubrick’s death Vitali sort of became his spokesman and the go to expert whenever Kubrick’s movies were being restored or re-released.  That’s kind of the part of his career I was most familiar with given that he was often interviewed whenever Kubrick’s movies came out on DVD or Blu-ray etc.  I must say I was a bit surprised that anyone else cared enough about the guy to make a somewhat high profile documentary about him.  Of course the big attraction here is to learn about Stanley Kubrick and his work habits through Vitali’s anecdotes and to get some anecdotes about the fights to maintain the integrity of his films on home video.  There are some interesting stories to be sure, but I think I got a better portrait of Kubrick’s work habits from the documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (which Vitali was interviewed for).  All told this thing would be great as a DVD/Blu-ray extra but as a stand alone film that got a theatrical release it doesn’t seem so essential.

*** out of Five

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs(11/28/2018)

Quentin Tarantino has said that a director needs to make three westerns to officially be considered a “western director,” which means that the Coen Brothers have surprisingly beaten him to the punch in that regard at least if you’re willing to count their 2007 triumph No Country for Old Men as a sort of modern western.  That movie represented the genre at its absolute bleakest and while their adaptation of True Grit is a lot lighter than that it’s still a pretty reverent take on the genre.  With their new western anthology film for Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, they seem to be letting loose a bit and having a little fun with the genre and bring more of their parodic sensibilities to the table.  This is most evident right out of the gate with the film’s first segment, which is a sort of hyper-violent riff on westerns of the Roy Rogers variety and the second segment feels like of like a Spaghetti western but with a particularly morbid little joke of an ending.  In fact almost all of these stories end with a bit of ironic gallows humor and some of them are quite dark.  Individually I’d say I enjoyed all of them but I’m not sure that they collectively add up to anything particularly profound.  There are very few authors who can make their short stories collections feel as important and vital as their novels and the same is probably true of filmmakers and anthology films like this.  I view this thing as being a side project rather than a core entrant in their filmography, but as side projects go it’s really fun and well made.

**** out of Five

Border(11/17/2018)

About ten years ago a film came into the culture called Let the Right One In.  That movie, about a young boy who befriends a girl who turns out to be a vampire, was widely acclaimed at the time and has managed to hold up quite well over the course of the following decade.  At the time liking the film felt like an act of defiance.  This was going on during the Twilight phenomenon and liking this Swedish vampire movie that seemed to cover similar-ish subject matter in a smarter and more adult way felt like a necessity to defend the honor of vampire fiction, which is an attitude that feels a bit overly dramatic in retrospect.  Ten years later that movie still works as a sort of dark modern fairy tale, which is a form that’s become increasingly popular with the rise of Guillermo del Toro.  That movie was directed by Tomas Alfredson, who went on to various highs and lows in Hollywood, but it was written by a guy named John Ajvide Lindqvist and based on his own novel of the same name.  That was actually his first published novel and he’s written a number of books since then without having really had the same kind of crossover success, but now he has found another set of collaborators and has come out with another film has emerged based on one of his short stories called Border.

The film is set in modern Sweden and follows a woman named Tina (Eva Melander) who works as a customs agent at the airport trying to thwart smugglers and the like.  Tina has a bit of an unusual look to her, one that almost looks like a physical deformity of sorts.  She has kind of a puffy face and some oddly shaped features like her nose and chin.  At one point it’s suggested that she believes she has some sort of chromosomal abnormality but it’s increasingly clear that what’s going on with her is different from any real world disability as she seems to have a sort of sixth sense that allows her to “smell” people’s feelings and fears, a trait that makes her rather talented as a border guard but which can alienate her from others.  She seems to be living a rather quite life until one day a guy named Vore (Eero Milonoff) walks past her customs desk who seems to have similar facial features including a large nose and a weird looking smile that kind of makes him look like Aphex Twin in the “Windowlicker” video.  Immediately Tina finds herself drawn to this guy, in part because she thinks he may have a better understanding of whatever she is, but Vore seems to have a couple of secrets of his own that he’s hiding.

The bones of the story here are not unlike that of Let the Right One In: both end up putting the supernatural into a modern context and both focus on two people who find something of a kindred spirit in one another even if it maybe isn’t good for both of them.  Border will perhaps be a harder sell to audiences for a few reasons, one of them being that unlike Let the Right One In this isn’t really a horror movie and it also can be a little alienating watching these two rather strange looking people interacting.  The film’s makeup effects are impressive, but not entirely seamless, you can see the prosthetics if you’re looking but at the same time the movie does a pretty good job of making these people look just weird enough to stand out but not so weird that they couldn’t live more or less normal lives if they wanted to.  There are also sexual elements in the film that emerge later on that will alienate audiences that don’t go in with a pretty open mind and other little touches that will frankly come off as rather gross.

As the film goes on it does become clear that this is meant to be something of an allegory for “otherness” within society, whether in terms of race, sexual orientation, or disability.  Specifically I think the film is supposed to tap into sexual orientation and gender identity given that the main character lives in society but feels different and isolated from everyone until she meets one of “her own” and starts to have everything snap into place.  The film also deals with some of the darker aspects of being and outsider given that Vore turns out to have something of a Magneto-like view of “normal” people.  That what the movie ultimately has to say about these themes is never quite as original as the weird trappings might suggest.  All in all this is not the easiest movie to recommend except to a very specific kind of audience that looking for something weird.  I don’t see this finding the relatively wide audience of Let the Right One In, but people who really loved that or the dark fairy tale aesthetic that Guillermo del Toro should probably give it a chance.

*** out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 11 – A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story would seem to be a more appropriate movie for my December round of the series than the November round what with its yuletide theme, and it is, but I’m hoping to do something a bit more epic for the final round so the Christmas movie will have to be looked at a month early.  This is also a little different from the other movies that have populated this review series in that it’s not really a Spielberg influenced blockbuster attempt and also because it was more of a cult hit that would become more famous long after the 80s were over. That isn’t to say that it was a bomb when it came out in 1983, it made twenty million dollars on a three million dollar budget and that’s a decent return, but it didn’t exactly take the world by storm.  The film’s rise to fame was actually not dissimilar from that of The Shawshank Redemption in that it sort of came and went in theaters but really became famous when for whatever reason basic cable got its hands on it and people started catching on.  Actually TV programers seem to have had a lot of influence over what movies become “holiday classics,” a similar thing happened to It’s a Wonderful Life as it was adopted as cheap Christmas programing on PBS stations.  According to A Christmas Story’s Wikipedia page (which has a rather detailed account of the film’s broadcast history), the Turner networks didn’t really get their hands on the movie until the mid-90s when I would have been about eight and neither I nor my parents must have been privy its increasing audience because it never became a Christmas tradition in my house, which is part of why I never gave it a shot until now.

Another part of why I hadn’t really seen the movie up to now is that I kind of hate Christmas movies… which is probably an extension of the fact that I think Christmas as a holiday is a load of humbug.  It’s a holiday that’s fun when you’re a kid and you need your parents to get you the coolest toys but once you’re old enough to buy your own shit it immediately becomes a complete waste of time.  The fact that Christmas has become this three month marketing extravaganza with its own music and movies dedicated to it becomes more and more annoying to me every year.  I don’t get it.  Fortunately this movie doesn’t seem wildly invested in the season’s cornier aspects either.  It seems to realize that kids are only really interested in Christmas for the most materialistic of reasons, that it’s often a complete pain in the ass for their parents, and that mall Santas are often just cranky old minimum wage earning slobs.  So there’s certainly an attitude here I can vibe with, but I wasn’t so into was the film’s sense of humor.  The film is in many ways the creation of a guy named Jean Shepherd, who has been described as a “storyteller” and radio personality who made a career of telling mildly funny stories about his childhood… so he was basically the David Sedaris of the 80s.  Shepherd’s appeal seems to be in his folksy observations about his hometown and family and yet the film keeps leaning towards some oddly broad gags like the father’s strange pride in a novelty sexy lamp, which I find more weird than funny.

Ultimately what fuels A Christmas Story is probably nostalgia, although it is somewhat curious that it’s a nostalgia for a time period that was pretty far back.  The usual expectation is that nostalgia is supposed to exist on a 20 year cycle.  The 1970s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 50s (American Graffiti) and the 1990s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 70s (Dazed and Confused), but the 1980s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 60s but this is set in the early 1940s.  People who were Ralphie’s age during the time this was set would have been in their 50s in 1983, and people in their 50s generally aren’t the target market for Hollywood films.  However, even audiences that don’t remember Little Orphan Annie decoder rings and Red Ryder air rifles they probably do remember the disappointment of having bought some other ripoff or some other toy they absolutely had to have.  The movie doesn’t necessarily hit this nostalgia wave in an overly profound or critical way, and at times it just kind of feels like a series of sketches, but I do more or less see the appeal.  I don’t know that I’ll be returning to this in any future Christmases, but it’s pretty alright.

To the Scorecard:

Does this movie live up to the hype?  Not exactly, or at least I certainly don’t see much of a reason that this thing deserves to have ever been broadcast for 24 hours straight by a cable network when other Christmas movies of similar quality are readily available.  That said, the movie is cute and entertaining for the most part and I get why people would mostly like it.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?(11/11/2018)

So, Melissa McCarthy is still around.  I must say I didn’t think too much of McCarthy when she broke onto the scene in Bridesmaids, or perhaps more specifically I didn’t see what the big deal was but then again I didn’t quite grasp what the big deal was with that whole movie.  Still, a lot of people liked it and the performance somehow managed to get a damn Oscar nomination.  She’s stuck around too even though she’s made all sorts of crap like Identity Thief, The Boss, and The Happytime Murders, but that hasn’t hurt her because the simple fact is that most mainstream comedy film stars mostly make crap these days.  Whether you’re Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, or Kevin Heart the dirty little secret about being a mainstream comedy film star is that, like being a baseball player, you can strike out in two thirds of you’re at bats and still be a star.  And remain a star she has even though The Heat and Spy are probably the only unambiguous commercial and critical hits of her post-Bridesmaids career.   And now right on time McCarthy has taken the next important step in a screen comedian’s career: taking a more serious role, which she’s done in the new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a writer who achieved some moderate success in the 70s and 80s writing magazine articles and celebrity biographies but who has fallen on hard times by the late 90s when the film begins.  She’s just lost her job at a publication for surly behavior and the public has lost a lot of interest in the literary showbiz figures she used to write about.  She now lives out of a cheap New York apartment she probably can’t afford with only a beloved cat and she clearly has a drinking problem.  After being told by her agent (Jane Curtain) that there’s basically no way she’s going to be given an advance for her proposed biography of an obscure vaudeville comedienne Israel finds herself unsure if she’s going to even be able to pay her bills.  Desperate, she decides to sell a letter she got from one of her celebrity subjects to a local book store, and in doing so she starts to wonder if maybe she could manufacture more such letters.  Soon she and her more streetwise friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) are running something of a two person forgery ring which may or may not catch up with her.

I don’t think my review of this movie is going to be overly long simply because it doesn’t elicit a whole lot to talk about despite having very little wrong with it and it generally being the very definition of a movie that’s “fine.”  The film largely operates as a character stud of Lee Israel and her misanthropic lifestyle.  Israel lives alone and seems to be largely content with this, claiming to like her cat more than most people.  It’s not entirely clear if she truly believes that or if it’s more of a defense mechanism, more than likely it’s a combination of the two.  Her friendship with Jack appears to be a bit of a bright spot, one born of their mutual outsider statuses.  Her criminal activity is by contrast a bit of a secondary element.  Her forging is somewhat interesting but her operation is interesting and impressive but not exactly the stuff of legend.  Ultimately the forging is less interesting in and of itself than it is for how it sort of gives her life purpose.  In this sense she’s sort of a low stakes non-violent Walter White, an ordinary person who enters into a life of crime partly out of financial necessity and partly as a sort of midlife crisis.

Melissa McCarthy is quite good at potraying this character and making her sympathetic.  If look up pictures of the real Lee Israel you find that McCarthy doesn’t really look that much like her but this doesn’t really matter too much because she certainly seems to understand the character type she’s working with and manages to give the character enough levity to keep her lifestyle from seeming rather depressing.  Beyond that this mostly just strikes me as a rather serviceable drama.  The film certainly looks good and evokes early 90s New York fairly well, but it’s not doing anything particularly bold visually, not that it needs to.  I also wouldn’t say that the drama here, I guess there are ultimately limits to how interesting I find this character and this story, but for what it sets out to do the film acquits itself fairly well and I don’t have much to complain about.

*** out of Five