1917: Back in the trenches with the Hollywood warmongers

Hermes Trenches 1917 collection available exclusively through Dreamworks. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The good news: Spielberg has finally taken a break from WWII movies. The bad news: now he’s going to wring every drop of blood from WWI. His Dreamworks production company has just served up 1917, with a Gallipoli-meets-Saving Private Ryan plotline co-written and directed by the smart and tasteful Sam Mendes. Et tu, Sammy? How about all you straight boomer-guy directors stop BSing about how war films “serve to remind us of the horrors of armed conflict” and just admit you get off on the spectacle of it. On the strategies and the machines and the heroics…and the death.

Yes, military recruitment commercials go to pains to present modern soldiering as akin to mastering a video game, but we all know that it still involves brothers and daughters and friends on the ground getting killed, maimed or psychologically damaged. Does a film showing how comparatively primitive early 20th-Century warfare was move the needle in any direction? 

Trailer overkill has us entering 1917 knowing the full measure of the plot: It’s WWI, infamous for trench warfare, and two young English soldiers are charged with hand-delivering a message to a battalion across enemy lines, a message that could prevent 1600 men, one of whom is the brother of one of our protagonists, from being slaughtered in a German trap. The only thing we don’t know going in (unless you saw Gallipoli) is if our two boys succeed, which, based on these filmmakers mumbled and disingenuous messaging, is beside the point. War is ugly, all you lot back at home, and it’s ugly whether you win or lose.

Before we can say “Billy, don’t be a hero!”, our boys are off, pushing their way through the narrow trenches, which isn’t made any easier by the steadycam operator on their heels. 1917 was sold to us on its technical virtuosity, on how the movie is one continuous shot following our actors ‘real time’. Well, sorry for the spoiler, but the technique is not done any more innovatively than we’ve seen already in movies like Birdman. There are plenty convenient moves past vertical elements to allow for unseen cutting, and at one point the movie knocks out one of the kids so it can use a minute of black screen to represent the passing of several hours. 

It does all look fantastic. This is Sam Mendes, of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, so the cinematography and production design are both so good they actually distract from the effort at realism with the grime and the gore. There are parts that feel more like the boys are on a tour of environmental art installations than a war zone. The German trenches are built of board-formed concrete walls worthy of Le Corbusier and sandbags stacked so perfectly it looks like an over-zealous Gap manager just passed through. A scrapyard of abandoned weapons has an undulating wooden path through mounds of huge artillery shells, the brass still shiny. And I have never seen a village so artfully bombed out as the one here. Throw down an Oushak rug and stretch a gauzy sun shade and you’re on the cover of Elle Décor.

Along with the highly-crafted look, we get action that is meant to not just impress us with the one-shot conceit, but to give us the experience of a theme park ride, because Speilberg. I can already hear the Tom Hanks intro VO: “But this isn’t Star Wars, ladies and gentlemen, this was a real war!” Our heroes go through the following on what is supposed to be an afternoon in a five-mile stretch of Northern France: barely escaping a collapsing tunnel (holy Indiana Jones!); running from a crashing plane that decides to crash exactly where they’re standing (Indy again!); ambushed frequently by German soldiers popping out of nowhere (yikes!); swept up in rapids and carried over a waterfall (oooh!); climbing over rotting, bloated bodies to get to shore (gross!). It’s all effective as far as keeping you engaged, especially the incredibly-choreographed sprint through a swarming battalion amidst explosions (the money shot from the trailer), but is it all taking us anywhere we haven’t been in 50 other war movies?

This is a nostalgic war picture produced by Dreamworks, so some soldier will joke about another soldier’s mother fellating him. One will come across a lovely French girl hiding in a bombed village. Someone we like will miraculously escape every bullet fired directly at him so he can return home to the people in the faded sepia photograph he keeps close to his heart.

And another we like will die a heroic death, the kind of death that endlessly fascinates the men who make these movies. Here’s a thought for your hundreds of millions of production dollars, guys: make movies about how we STOP wars, instead of forever wallowing in everything that’s so awful about them.

1917 is currently in theaters nationwide.

#movies #moviereviews #ratedfritz #1917 #oscarnoms

Little Women: Frances Ha unwinds in 19th Century Massachusetts.

“But I’m wearing a strapless red organza gown to the premier, Timothee. Give it a rest.”

In honor of her new Broadway musical, I’m going to have Alanis Morrisette sum up Little Women:

It’s a Christmas pudding, When you’re already stuffed

It’s a late party guest, When you’ve just had enough

It’s a glass of Veuve, After cheap wine’s made you drunk

It’s a reverent adaptation, From Greta Gerwig (who’d a thunk?!)

Isn’t it ironic?

Unlike so many other Oscar-bait films this season, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women wasn’t premiered by a streaming service or at a prestigious film festival. Short clips were teased out tastefully through the fall and the film opened to holiday movie-goers in theaters crowded with franchise blockbusters and kiddie fare.

The irony is that this recent fall’s Netflix Oscar-bait and buzzy festival darlings turned out to be really good, satisfying the typically-wanting end-of-year hunger for an intelligent, resonant film. Little Women is that, but in light of the films this year that have forced debate about pressing issues or presented familiar subjects – and actors – in strikingly new ways, it feels a bit…little. When Joaquin is in one corner doing contortionist tricks and Scarlett and Adam are having a fight people are filming on their phones and Martin is on the sofa mesmerizing all the acolytes, the interesting but neurotic chatterbox you bumped into in the kitchen isn’t the person you’re going to remember in the morning.

The line is that Gerwig’s restless energy makes Little Women feel more ‘modern’, but Louisa May Alcott’s story was always modern. What Gerwig does is deliver an accomplished and respectful film that would have been just as accomplished without her playing with the timeline or pushing the March sisters into each other – literally and figuratively – as much as she does.

Jo March is probably the closest thing to a Gerwig character in classic literature, so Alcott really did the work there. Gerwig simply runs with it, and pulls in her alter-ego Saoirse Ronan to bring this umpteenth Jo to life. Which Ronan does terrifically of course, because she’s an actress with infectious energy, but she also goes deeper than many portrayals by leaning into the underlying neurosis of Jo, her desperate need to be liked as a person and respected as a unique voice. 

The other place Gerwig most leaves a signature distinct from Alcott is in youngest sister Amy. She makes the character’s narrative arc more dramatic, giving us a March sister as interesting as Jo. This – not the timeline hopscotch or the camerawork or the styling – is what shows Gerwig to be as good a director as she is an actress and writer. It helps that she has Florence Pugh to make Amy mature in such a consistent and believable way.

It does feel like Gerwig went into this film most attracted to Jo and Amy, and didn’t bring the same level of examination to the rest of the characters. She approaches the other sisters, Meg and Beth, with little more than due diligence. Luckily, Eliza Scanlen, who plays doomed Beth, is an actress capable of expressing an inner life even when given few lines and scant screen time. Emma Watson’s Meg, though, is left flailing and one-dimensional.

Laura Dern playing sweet and deferential is not the Laura Dern we’ve been jonesing over lately, so you kind of wish someone else had been stuck in the mother role. She gets to say Marmee’s most famous line – “I’m angry every day of my life” – but Gerwig doesn’t let her bring any Renata Klein to the delivery, even though Alcott would have probably loved Renata.

Then there’s Timothee Chalamet, Gerwig’s crush. He’s perfectly cast as dreamy, frivolous Laurie, a character Alcott clearly never liked and didn’t want to shackle her heroine Jo with. By matching Laurie with a more interesting Amy, Gerwig chooses to avoid the dump-on-Laurie path Alcott probably wanted to go down if not for her 19th-century manners.

Gerwig also caves on another male character. Jo’s boarding house admirer and eventual husband, Friedrich Bhaer, has been transformed from a portly 40-ish German to a hot young Frenchman. This can’t be excused as ‘moderniizing’ the story. In fact, it’s the opposite. Alcott didn’t want Jo to marry, but gave readers of the time what she felt they wanted (typical Louisa/Jo, needing everyone to like her). It was a reluctant cop-out, and by turning Friedrich so traditionally handsome, Gerwig doubles down on that cop-out, giving audiences a more romance-movie match for a Jo played by an actress whose ethereal beauty is not commensurate with the way Alcott portrayed her Jo.

But Little Women delivers. If the relentless busy-ness of the first half bothers you, the second half will make up for it. The scrums of hoop-skirted little ladies jockeying around tight parlors in short scenes are phased out, and characters are paired off more to allow them, and us, some room to breathe. The scenes where both Jo and Amy move Laurie into the position they want him in are cracking – sharp and smart and heartbreaking in subtler ways than the expected tear-jerkers surrounding Beth’s demise. 

Little Women is equal parts bouncy and grounded, sharp and soft. Like Alcott did with readers, it tries to give movie-goers everything they want. Yet Alcott did leave places in her story for readers to insert their own interpretations, and this is something you’d have expected Gerwig to take advantage of. She certainly champions Jo’s iconoclastic independence, as Alcott did and as every other adaptation focuses on. That’s easy, and we have more and more cinema bringing strong, independent women to the fore. But what’s behind women who don’t show these qualities? In Alcott’s time it was safer to present an independent woman as a quirky literary creation than to critically examine women like Meg, who couldn’t, even when given the opportunity, break free of traditional thinking, or Amy, who looks soberly at the limits put on her gender and accepts them as inevitable. In light of Amy’s complaint that her painting skills are not ‘genius’ enough for her to be independent of men, you can argue that Alcott’s take-away was that Jo could behave as she wanted because she was blessed with artistic talent at an exceptionally high level. A modern idea in 1868, yes, but Greta, it’s 2019 now. Alcott would have welcomed insight from a more evolved era, that could have made her little women even bigger.

Little Women is currently in theaters nationwide.

#movies #moviereviews #ratedfritz #littlewomen #oscarnoms

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: Hyper-jumping with nowhere to go

“Really, Chewy? I figured Poe was the top.” Photo courtesy of Disney Studios

THIS IS A SPOILER REVIEW

Let’s admit it. Disney is brilliant. Diabolically so, but still. The grand introduction of their new streaming service came in the form of The Mandalorian, a space opera styled both narratively and visually with the simplicity of a classic western. It gave us a stoic, Eastwoodesque anti-hero and Baby Yoda, a character that is arguably the most marketable creation yet to come from the franchise. 

Meanwhile, over on their Star Wars movie lot, they had devolving hack JJ Abrams grinding out the finale to a beloved franchise with an unnerving frenzy clearly meant to distract from the script’s lack of imagination, joy, art, love – you name it. You have to assume this is a calculated strategy: to send out the old Star Wars in as uninspired a way as possible, so we’re even hungrier for something fresh on Disney+.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens with scenes so blatantly designed to sell theme park rides that it taints everything to come. I get that Galaxy’s Edge is a flop, but using the swan song of a series that built the sci-fi fantasy genre to boost park attendance is callous and disrespectful as hell. 

We hyper-jump back and forth from the Millennium Falcon hyper-jumping and tilt-a-whirling through space obstacles to Rey zipping and light-sabering her way through training course obstacles. Everyone crashes together and immediately starts riffing so fast and furious that nothing lands. Nothing from the entire opening ever lands, which is a warning for what’s to come.

It seems Emperor Palpatine has survived being tossed into space from the second Death Star in Episode VI. Considering that from its beginning Star Wars made the Sith one-dimensionally villainous, there’s no sense of heightened threat to this return. He still plans to obliterate planets and gain ultimate power, and he’s not even doing so in gold lamee and cool special-effect rotting skin like Snoke, so tell us again why you’re interesting, Emperor? 

Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is there with him, and then not in the rest of the movie nearly enough. So we’re left to get our good acting and hot man-ness from Oscar Isaac’s Poe.

Next we’re at the rebel base, and one of the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings begged to be on set, so there he is. Due to toxic fans, Finn’s Asian lady sidekick/fake love interest has been sidelined, so our band of heroes is now Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewy and C3PO. They have to find a map to where Palpatine is so Rey can kill him. First stop: Burning Man!

Only this movie wishes it had the imagination of Burning Man. The planet Pissona, named for what Abrams is doing to this franchise, is meant to feel like a walk through a third-world market – the beings look like either shrimp or pigs and there’s lots of colored powder being tossed about, which was popular in stock photography what, 5 years ago? Lando Kalrissian joins them, some Dora the Explorer-level clue-finding business happens, and Kylo Ren steals Rey’s mala beads in one of their psychic tete-a-tetes. He doesn’t wear them, because you don’t wear mala beads over a black turtleneck unless you’re going to your aunt’s friend’s art show at an organic café in Sonoma.

They escape Pissona ona ship that we know is old because it has…cobwebs! The art department is just doing such a crack job on this $300-million-dollar film!

The next clue is on a planet named something like Kathy Najimi, and they used the set of the town in The Hobbit that the dragon attacks, so maybe that’s why the Hobbit’s around, even though he’s not in this sequence. But Keri Russell is, and we get our hopes up that she’ll bring her spark to this worn-out team. Alas, Poe pissed her off in the past by running away before they had sex (Disney is trying to act all cagey about Poe’s sexuality, but they don’t have the stomach for the ruse, as we’ll see at the end), so she’s a no-go.

Our Keri-less team sneaks onto a Star Destroyer to get the captured Millennium Falcon back, and there we get the only truly fresh element in this whole movie – a Storm Trooper actually lands a shot! Poe gets wounded with absolutely no consequence to himself or the proceedings.

Rey sneaks into Kylo’s chambers – where there is no bed, so don’t get your hopes up – and sees her past. Her mother was Villanelle from Killing Eve! And again we are teased with an actress who could have made things interesting but is only stunt casting.

My vibrating phone wakes me up in time to see that the sniveling ginger Empire lackey from the first two films in this final trilogy is a spy for the rebels, but he’s only helping them because he’s jealous of Kylo. How’s that for a compelling motivation? After helping our heroes escape, he pulls the ole “shoot me in the arm so it doesn’t look suspicious” move, but his superior Richard E Grant has seen all the movies that this happens in so shoots the ginger for real. Don’t worry, he comes back to life in the sure-to-be-dismal Peter Rabbit sequel.

Where are we now? On a storm-tossed planet where we meet Finn’s new fake love interest who rides a horse that the art department glued a Halloween mask to so it can be an alien horse. The map to Palpatine is in the wreckage of the Death Star out in the stormy sea so Rey catamarans over to get it. Adam Driver is waiting, and he continues to press for a relationship, which, come on Rey, you can change him! Isn’t that 6-foot, heaven-inches of broad-shouldered brooding worth it? No, says Rey, and they fight. Leia sacrifices herself from light-years away to force-distract her son so Rey can kill him. Yes, both Leia and Kylo are now dead! Get those last two berths in the Solo family crypt ready. We must be nearing the end.

But wait! Rey seems to have heeded my advice and force-heals Kylo, an act of kindness that exorcizes evil Kylo Ren from gentle Ben Solo. To make sure this sticks, Han appears – but he doesn’t glow blue because only Jedi ghosts do that – and he and his now good son repeat their climactic scene from Episode VII, word for word, only this time instead of sabering the life out of his dad, Kylo-now-Ben tosses his cool cruciform lightsaber into the sea, where it gets lodged in a turtle’s throat, and now we’ve got Greta Thunburg to answer to, never mind Palpatine. Nice Ben does not do for my pants what Mean Kylo did, so for me the trilogy ends here.

We still have to rid the galaxy of Palpatine, though, so off Rey goes. Oh, PS, we found out in the last sequence that she is actually Palpatine’s granddaughter, a fan theory we saw coming from 200 parceps away. Again, any effort to make this final SW surprising or original is non-existent.

Does she kill him? Of course. Does she do so in any kind of inspired or clever way, like, for instance, how Kylo dispatched Snope? Of course not. 

I’ve always felt the most valuable asset of this trilogy has been Adam Driver. The only resonant image we walk away with from this final movie in our beloved series is Driver’s face as he gives his life to save Rey. The scene throws back to Ben’s grandfather Darth Vader’s sacrifice to save Luke, and Driver is an actor with the caliber to convey his character’s entire storyline – in essence the series’ entire storyline – through a silent glance. After everyone else spent this trilogy running around spitting out hacky lines, Driver closes all nine Star Wars by closing his eyes.

We do get one last nod to something we’ve been teased with through the VII-IX trilogy. Because Disney can’t bring itself to have Poe and Finn show that their love is more than platonic, the film shows two female rebels kissing during the celebration, then cuts immediately to Finn and Poe spotting each other and running madly into an embrace.

It’s an ending Major Pete might be comfortable with, but for fans looking forward to a kiss-off we’ve been waiting so long for, all we get is a cold shower.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is now in theaters nationally.

#movies #moviereviews #ratedfritz #starwarstheriseofskywalker

GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS


The GG nominations are still for some reason considered a bellwether for the Oscars, but all these nominations ever do is confirm what everyone was already thinking, and in the rare cases where the Hollywood Foreign Press Association throws in a curveball, that ball goes way foul of Oscar boundaries (Pia Zadora, anyone? Anyone?)

The Irishman and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood were big nominees this year, with five each. The HFPA loves a master director and big name Hollywood actors in top form as much as Oscar does, so this head nod to the expected isn’t surprising. 

It’s Marriage Story that gets the real traction from these nominations. With six total, it’s the most recognized film in the pack, and the names involved are much newer to big awards than Scorsese, Pacino, Hopkins, etc. So while we figure the nominations for Marriage Story– Best Picture, Baumbach’s screenplay, Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern – will be repeated by Oscar, the fact that the film topped the other prestige names for GG’s love bumps it up the Oscar Best Picture list ahead of other films that didn’t see their buzz reflected by the Globes.

The Globes do often pass over films that Oscar ends up loving, so expect Little Women to be much more prominent with Oscar, especially in the craft categories that the Globes don’t have. Though it has to be noted that of the three prestige films yet to be wide released that are expected to feature significantly at the Oscars, only Sam Mendes’ 1917 got any attention from the Globes. Both Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell were ignored other than one acting nod each and a score mention for LW. Methinks the Globes got this one right…

What else did they get right? In this year of violent jokers and somber Irishmen and painful marriage stories, the Globes showed plenty love for the film that probably put more smiles on faces than any other in 2019 – Knives Out. The HFPA is an organization of journalists from 2nd tier EU countries like Croatia and Malta, places you’d never know of if they weren’t exotic locations in Bond movies, so they love Daniel Craig and his coterie, hence nominations for Craig and Ana de Armas, who really wasn’t anything much in Knives Out, but happens to be a Bond girl opposite Craig in the upcoming 007.

They also appear to have their finger a bit more on the pulse of Hollywood tastes this go-round, as most of the other nominees reflect the best aspects of their respective films. The audaciousness of Joker deserves a Best Picture, Director and Actor nod, but its pointless screenplay was rightfully ignored (and hopefully will be by Oscar as well). Jennifer Lopez, Rene Zellwegger, Tom Hanks and Awkwafina all anchored films that would have been too flat or meandering without them. And though the more conservative The Two Popes kept Parasite from the Globes’ Best Picture list, Bong Joon Ho’s fantastically original writing and direction could not be ignored. Parasite will get a Best Picture nom from Oscar, or I’ll bash my head in with a money stone.

One last tip of the hat to the HFPA for recognizing Dolomite Is My Name and Eddie Murphy. The Globes’ Best Actor (Drama) list was an odd one, with a couple names that few expect to see on Oscar’s final five (Christian Bale, whose role was more supporting in Ford v Ferrari, and Antonio Banderas, who, though good in Pain&Glory, is getting love more because he’s playing GG-favorite Pedro Almodovar.) Eddie Murphy deserves to be on Oscar’s list more than either of those two.

Bringing up the rear are always a couple talented veterans who show up on Globe lists even though the films they were in were crap. This year it’s Emma Thompson for Late Night and Cate Blanchett for Where’d You Go, Bernadette? 

The idea that the Globes steal thunder from the Oscars is still valid, which you can tell by the cat-and-mouse game the two award shows play. The Oscars are ‘experimenting’ with moving their show a month earlier in 2020 (February 9), so the Globes decided to happen ASAP after the holidays – January 5 – before most have even had a chance to see the end-of-year big releases like Little Women and 1917, which is kind of silly. The Globe winners will still be hung over when only a week after that show the Oscars announce their nominations. It’s enough to twist Joaquin Phoenix into contortions!

Good luck to all, and it’s an honor just to be nominated, right?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Cadmium Orange Is the New Black

You fall in love with an artist, you’re gonna get burned. Photo courtesy of Pyramide Films

Every year Hollywood imports a new French lesbian movie. I usually run in the opposite direction because of all the whispering-in-bed scenes and pained longing you can’t feel because you’re too busy reading novel-length subtitles. And I mean, if no one’s going to eat jizz off a peach, why did I sit through all that?

However…wow. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is close to perfection.

You do have to get past the too-obvious title (the French version is more nuanced about the Henry James reference), and there will be times when someone in the throes of passion will say (whisper) lines like “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” It’s a French movie, they can’t help themselves.

But you’ll be rewarded with an exquisitely composed, beautifully shot, subtly acted film where nothing is wasted and emotions are allowed to resonate in stillness, unlike Hollywood films that push us into every feel with music cues and histrionics. 

The plot is simple, and focusing on it is hard at first because you’re drooling over all the props. The piano with the colors reversed on the keys – the big ones are ebony and the little ones are ivory – is to die for, even though it might confuse pianists other than Stevie Wonder. And though each of the four women who occupy the perfectly aged stone villa only have one dress, you never get tired of looking at those four dresses. 

Things kick off with a painter who looks exactly like Emma Watson arriving at the remote sea-swept villa to paint a betrothal portrait of a young woman we learn is an impossible subject. The previous painter was driven to wipe the woman’s entire head off his attempt and run screaming, so we’re primed for her reveal, and it is teased out in a series of wonderfully clever bits of staging.

The movie is full of brilliant narrative details like this, and they aren’t all pretty either. Did you know that 18thCentury abortions entailed playing Red Rover Red Rover on a beach, then drinking weed tea while hanging from the ceiling, and finally having a homemade exfoliate mask spread inside your hoohah while you hold a baby’s hand? Don’t get any ideas, Alabama.

Men appear only in the first five and last five minutes of the film, so we don’t know how the pregnancy could have happened, but it’s not one of the lesbians, so don’t worry, their relationship doesn’t get messy in that way. Haha.

There’s a lot of brush-stroking on canvas close-ups, which we all get mesmerized by, admit it, and lots of scenes set in the rustic kitchen so that the persimmons and blocks of chevre can have their moment in the chiaroscuro.

There are plenty movies that sound really good when described and turn out to be awful when they get up on screen. And there are movies that can sound like an eye-roller when described but prove to be amazing. That kind of save is all about smart choices and superb effort by everyone involved, none more so than the director.

So my hat is off to director – and also screenwriter, damn girl! – Celine Sciamma. She’s the real lady on fire here.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in limited release on December 6.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #portraitofaladyonfire #noff2019