Movie Review ~ Marriage Story

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 136 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Relationships are hard.  We all know this because we’ve all been in one and understand the complexities that go into forming a bond with someone and the work necessary in keeping those home fires burning.  Even if you love the person deeply, there are times when you need to remember the reason why you got together in the first place.  These are internal feelings hard to express not just to an outside observer but to yourself.  Now add in a shared career, living space, and the livelihood of another human being and you have a little more of an idea how much a marriage ups those stakes.

Marriage Story isn’t the first movie to explore the crumbling of a union, nor will it be the last but it’s the first one I can remember that seems to have found a way to believably get inside the hearts, minds, and psyche of two people that have decided to call it quits.  The reasons aren’t cut and dry, they haven’t been given Hollywood-ized rationales for parting ways but instead are balancing carefully weighed and emotionally resonant choices that, for at least one of them, have been agonized over.  There’s no early dramatic spike where one announces to the other “I want a divorce”, when the movie opens we’re already in that space and that’s how writer/director Noah Baumbach invites us into the private lives of a family navigating an unknown space.

Successful New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) have enjoyed building up their small theater company over the past decade.  She’s a former Hollywood actress that left the glitz for something more challenging and gritty, finding that in Charlie’s creative work environment.  They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and a seemingly pleasant life suggested by opening voice-overs by the two in which they extol what they like most about the other.  Turns out this is all an exercise used in mediation to facilitate an easy separation.  Charlie has hurt Nicole and she’s asked for a divorce.  She’s accepted an offer to film a pilot in L.A. and will be taking Henry with her while she films the show, Charlie will stay behind to bring their latest production to Broadway.

As the movie unfolds and a planned amicable separation turns ugly, the husband and wife become unlikely adversaries.  As parents, they become spiteful and their collaborative friendship sours.  Charlie leaned on Nicole more than he knew and when she withdraws that support he understands, slowly and too late, all that she sacrificed.  When Nicole hires a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars), the gloves come off; small incidents become fodder for character assassinations and negotiations on living arrangements bring out the worst in everyone.  Charlie enlists the assistance of two lawyers, one (Alan Alda, The Longest Ride) is more pragmatic of the situation and the other (Ray Liotta, The Iceman) isn’t afraid to get down in the mud with Nicole’s attorney.  One guess who he winds up paying a hefty retainer to.

Many have compared the film (in small theatrical release now and streaming on Netflix) to 1979’s divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer and they aren’t so off the mark.  That film is decidedly more focused on the man’s point of view and Marriage Story has a more even keel, never quite taking the side of either party but leaning every so slightly into the Nicole camp for the majority of the 136 minute running length.  Charlie is going to frustrate a lot of people (disagreeing, my partner and I had a long discussion about him after) because many of the problems with the marriage seem to stem from his lack of self-awareness regarding putting his own needs above others.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that call out, but there’s a difference between being knowingly self-centered and simply lacking the skills to separate what is important now from what is important in the long run.  Charlie falls into that latter category.

It’s not a huge secret Baumbauch (Mistress America) drew inspiration from his own shaky divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when composing this film.  I’m not sure how much she’d appreciate this movie or how much of Nicole is drawn with her in mind but Nicole is often shown as quietly harboring resentment that she later wields at her ex-husband in sometimes cruel ways.  True, it could be a justified way of exerting some power for the first time when she felt powerless for so long, but it doesn’t always make her look like the better party.  It helps innumerably that Johansson gives Nicole layers upon layers of nuance, peeling back each cover for us and showing a refreshed person underneath.  The wife in a divorce is often relegated to a cliche but Baumbach works with Johansson to make this wife more than just a woman breaking free from a joyless union or nobly taking back her hard-won freedom, this is a woman simply saying she wants a different life and having the confidence and courage to make it happen.

Speaking of Johansson, in the same year she was so great in Jojo Rabbit, this is arguably the best work she’s ever done and it’s a performance that doesn’t peak early.  Though a lengthy speech to Dern may feel like her big moment she has more surprising scenes throughout and it’s a wonder to watch her work.  She has believable chemistry with Driver and I bought the two had formed a family with Robertson and felt that twinge of guilt she experienced when she was breaking up that unit.  I struggle with the popularity of Driver, failing to truly understand why he’s as universally acclaimed as he is and for much of the movie I just wasn’t getting the sewn up Best Actor buzz that followed him with this movie.  The final thirty minutes, however, had some pretty powerful scenes for Driver to play and he works them, especially an emotionally on-the-nose Sondheim song, like a master.  I’m not sure it’s an Oscar slam-dunk as others do, but it’s certainly worthy of recognition.  What I am scratching my head on is the fiery buzz around Dern’s divorce attorney.  Now, you won’t find a bigger Dern supporter than myself and while I found her to be a strong supporting player along with Alda, Liotta, Julie Hagerty (as Nicole’s mom), Merritt Weaver (Welcome to Marwen, as Nicole’s sister), and Martha Kelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a hilariously deadpan social worker), is this an Oscar-winning role? No way.  Dern can do this kind of role in her sleep and I found it sadly lacking in the kind of levels that I normally would look to an Oscar-winning performance to showcase.

Written and directed by a man that went through a difficult divorce, Marriage Story could easily have been a way to exorcise some frustrations of that experience but instead Baumbach has brought forth a sensitive and at times understated exploration of separation.  Not just the legal pieces or the physical distance between the families but the emotional aspects of what happens when people are removed from the lives of others.  They say divorce is like a death and it’s the most telling in two moments from the movie.  One scene a character looks on a wall and sees family pictures in which they are well represented, later on after all is said and done they visit the same wall and they have completely disappeared, like they never existed at all.  It’s one of the saddest moments Baumbach captures.

The Silver Bullet ~ Stretch

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Synopsis: A hard-luck limo driver struggling to go straight and pay off a debt to his bookie takes on a job with a crazed passenger whose sought-after ledger implicates some seriously dangerous criminals.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: I’d like to have some sympathy for Patrick Wilson but after starring in a string of modest budget box office hits like The Conjuring, Insidious, and Insidious: Chapter 2 I don’t think the actor is necessarily hurting for work or to pay his bills. Still, whenever I see any actor given the chance to lead a film that’s then pretty much dumped by its studio like Stretch was (it’s OnDemand now) I have to admit my cold Grinch-y heart breaks a little. Directed by Joe Carnahan (The Grey) and co-starring Ed Helms (We’re the Millers) and Jessica Alba (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) I’ve no doubt all involved will solider on to other projects that will be given a better chance at survival.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kill the Messenger

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, a reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California.

Release Date:  October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though it reeks of Jeremy Renner continuing his neverending quest for Oscar glory, there’s little doubt that the real life story serving as the basis for Kill the Messenger has potential to be a pivotal moment in his career.  Look, we all know that Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) can act with the best of them…but I feel the actor is taking himself a bit too seriously at this point.  Working with director Michael Cuesta to bring journalist Gary Webb’s life to the big screen, Renner makes a good impression in this first trailer…though it does feel like we’ve seen this exact same story told several times each decade .

The Silver Bullet ~ Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Synopsis: The town’s most hard-boiled citizens cross paths with some of its more reviled inhabitants.

Release Date: August 24, 2014

Thoughts: Not exactly striking while the iron was hot, this sequel to 2005’s technically sound but pretty darn moody Sin City finally makes it to the big screen after almost a decade of false starts and other production delays. Again directed by Robert Rodriguez and graphic novelist Frank Miller (also at the pen for 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire) this looks to have the same dark flash as its predecessor while introducing a new roster of shady characters like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon), Eva Green (Cracks, Dark Shadows), and Josh Brolin (Oldboy, Labor Day) along with returning stars Bruce Willis (Color of Night), Mickey Rourke (Iron Man 2), and Jessica Alba. The first film broke new ground with its visuals…but it’s 10 years later and what was one revolutionary is now standard. What more does this film have to offer…and will it be too little, too late?

Movie Review ~ The Iceman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man. When finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor daughters have any clue about his real profession.

Stars: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Danny Abeckaser, Stephen Dorff, James Franco

Director: Ariel Vroman

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While everyone is all abuzz about the Scorsese-lite 70’s crime drama American Hustle, there was another true crime film released in 2013 that featured another impressive cast list decked out in period attire – and for my money it winds up dancing circles around the overlong Hustle.

Michael Shannon (Man of Steel) leads the parade of familiar faces masquerading behind wigs and porn ‘staches as Richard Kuklinski, a New Jersey family man that leads a double life as a hardened contract killer.  The film follows Kuklinski over three decades as he marries his sweetheart (Winona Ryder, Frankenweenie, Homefront), gets wrapped up in shady dealings with Ray Liotta (The Place Beyond the Pines), and offs a formidable amount of character actors.  Kuklinski treated his work like any other 9 to 5 job; he shows up for an assignment, dispatches an unlucky soul, and makes it back in time to have dinner in suburbia with his wife and two daughters.

Eventually given the name The Iceman because of his habit of freezing his victims for later disposal, he also earns the moniker for his unwavering dedication to his role.  You see, this work puts food on the table and clothes on the backs of his family so anyone getting in the way of that can’t be let off with merely a warning.  The film doesn’t glorify the violence enacted by Kuklinski but doesn’t shy away from showing the bullets to the head.

When your lead is someone we’re not supposed to feel sympathy for, casting is everything.  You need an actor that can play a duality that makes you understand his rationale for his proceedings while condemning it at the same time.  Shannon is the perfect fit for this type of role and the actor becomes one with the character in frightening ways.

He’s matched well by the ageless Ryder, slowly advancing her comeback after taking a few years away from the lights of Hollywood.  Her Jersey housewife is no Carmela Soprano; she’s clueless to her husband’s second life but also isn’t naïve enough to think that their quaint life is the picture of perfection.  Her concerns are more about her marriage and family than anything her husband has going on the side.

Popping up in smaller roles are Chris Evans (Marvel’s The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Robert Davi (Licence to Kill), James Franco (This is the End, Lovelace), Stephen Dorff, and David Schwimmer.  All are solid performers that serve their purpose in giving Shannon room to breathe life into a villainous anti-hero in director Ariel Vroman’s hard-boiled drama.

While the film is set over a large time period, it wouldn’t be that hard to imagine the events taking place in the present.  Vroman gives his film a timeless feel, which winds up adding to its authenticity.  The production design is handled with a lighter touch than most period films so rather than pounding our eardrums with endless tunes of the era or dressing our actors in excessively retro costumes there are hints here and there about where we are in history.

While audiences and googly-eyed critics may be doing the Hustle at your local cinema, fire up The Iceman (available on Netflix) and watch how to make a solid character study that’s more about performance than production.

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Movie Review ~ The Place Beyond the Pines

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The ads for The Place Beyond the Pines would have you believe that Gosling is the star of the show and I’d say that’s about 1/3 right.  In actuality, Gosling is just one part of a film that is essentially a three act saga that winds up feeling a little Scorcese/Coppola-lite.  It’s not that director Cianfrance’s second narrative feature doesn’t have its good moments, because when you factor in some hard hitting corruption mixed with cops and robbers mayhem it certainly does.  No, what keeps the movie from being fully satisfying is its hesitation to move toward completion in the face of a slightly saggy running time.

Reteaming with his Blue Valentine star (and I’ll say again that Gosling was unjustly overlooked for an Oscar nomination for his work in that tough love movie), Cianfrance decides to go big or go home as he follows the lives of two different men across fifteen years – both are men trying to do good from different angles so the movie really emerges from the Venn Diagram this creates.

Opening with Gosling as a tattooed cyclist faced with finding a way to support a child he didn’t know he had, the film gets off to a rough start with a soundtrack that drowns out our actors and asks us to strain to hear what Gosling and co-star Mendes are softly murmuring about.  Director Robert Altman made overlapping dialogue his calling card and I’m hoping that Cianfrance isn’t taking it a step further with a film where you may need the benefit of closed captioning to figure out what people are saying.  It really doesn’t matter all that much because the basic thrust of this slice of life is the standard “man turns to crime to support family” set-up.

Don’t get me wrong, Gosling plays this troubled guy like a pro and the further he ventures away from the right side of the law (with the help of a slightly askew but nevertheless fascinating performance from Mendelsohn) the more we fear for his future.  That future collides with rookie cop Cooper (fresh from his Oscar nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook and before May’s The Hangover Part III) and that’s when the film takes its first of many turns.  Cooper’s cop is a do-gooder, unfazed by the temptation of corruption and naïve to the danger this poses to his career and family.  With a new son of his own and a wife (Byrne, Bridesmaids) who just may wear the pants in the family, Cooper doesn’t let himself get pushed around by his comrades headed up by Liotta who hasn’t yet met a scumbag he can’t play like a harp.

It’s from Cooper’s story that the film takes another jump and I think I’ll leave where that leads to your discovery.  I will say that it’s in this third act where the  movie will either seal the deal or leave you cold – the more I ponder the film the more unhappy I grow with it because of this section that feels too on-the-nose, too pre-destined to really be believable.  One interesting thing about the final section is that it features Cohen (TV’s Smash) and DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle), both of whom may remind you of A-Listers Channing Tatum and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively.

Cianfrance and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keep the movie going at breakneck speed but when it drags during its 141 minute run time the film struggles to right itself with a conclusion that satiates.  I’m not a person that needs all the questions answered by a film and actually prefer that not everything is explained but The Place Beyond the Pines feels like it never knew the answers to begin with.  Instead of creating characters and situations that feel new, Cianfrance and co-screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder look back at any number of crime archetypes found in film.

A trip to The Place Beyond the Pines may not be essential or necessary but the movie’s not a total wash so I don’t want to outright discourage a viewing of it should the interest be there on your part.  Despite the dialogue problems I mentioned above, the film has an unobtrusive score from Mike Patton that works with the sparse world Cianfrance has created.  Aside from a make-up design that ages all the women but seems to make the men younger, performances are sound and the movie does have several scenes with a decent amount of payoff.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Place Beyond the Pines

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Synopsis: A motorcycle stunt rider considers committing a crime in order to provide for his wife and child, an act that puts him on a collision course with a cop-turned-politician.

Release Date:  March 29, 2013

Thoughts: Reteaming with his Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, star Ryan Gosling throws himself into yet another troubled character seeking some sort of redemption from the people he loves.  Gosling was majorly snubbed by Oscar voters for his work in Blue Valentine and continues to be a star that rightfully earns his solid reputation with each film he makes.  I’m also looking forward to seeing what Bradley Cooper does with his role coming off of the strong showing he made in Silver Linings Playbook.  Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Place Beyond the Pines will hopefully be as entertaining and interesting as its stars.