MARRIAGE STORY (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nicole has already made her decision. The film opens with her and husband Charlie in a therapy session. They are listing traits they admire about the other person. Watching this, we are unsure if the therapist thinks this exercise might salvage a broken marriage, or if it’s some cruel way of highlighting what is being lost. This is writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most gut-wrenching film to date, and it’s based, at least partially, on his split from wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Writing about personal experience is nothing new for Baumbach, as THE SQUID AND THE WHALE was inspired by his parents’ divorce.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is an up-and-coming theatre director in New York City, and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is the company’s lead actor. When Nicole informs Charlie that she wants a divorce, and is headed back home to Los Angeles to be with family and resume her TV acting career, he is stunned. She explains that her dreams and ambitions have been stifled by focusing on his career, and despite her numerous attempts to discuss this, he has never bothered to take her seriously. Oh, and she’s taking their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.

What follows is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing, editing, and human nature. We watch as Nicole builds the foundation of her new life, while Charlie is staggered – not so much in denial, as disbelief. Their initial course of an amicable split, equitable division of belongings, and shared/split custody of Henry is abruptly altered when Nicole takes counsel from powerhouse LA divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Complicating matters is the bi-coastal nature of the divorce and California laws. This forces Charlie to meet with attorney Bert Spitz (a terrific Alan Alda), who may or may not be up to the task – his acumen varying from day to day.

Baumbach allows both sides to play out. These are basically normal, good people in a situation that brings out the worst traits in both. Unsparing pain arises at every turn. One particular argument between Charlie and Nicole is the axis on which the movie turns. It’s a spilling of guts and filled with devastating honesty. The scene is relentless and builds to a breakdown or breakthrough … any description leaves us spent. Just when we don’t believe we can handle any more emotional turmoil, up pops a moment of genuine tenderness that restores our faith – even if it’s only long enough for us to breathe again. There are even some surprisingly funny (dark humor) moments sprinkled throughout, just as there is in life.

Supporting roles are filled beautifully by Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver and Wallace Shawn. As Henry, Azhy Robertson avoids the “cute-kid” syndrome and delivers an actual nuanced performance by a child actor. Although it seems they are both everywhere these days, Ms. Johansson and Mr. Driver are truly outstanding in their roles here. Scarlet perfectly captures a woman moving on, while Adam singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at the bar in front of his theatre company is one of the most poignant on screen moments of the year.

There have been some amazing movies about marriage/divorce over the years. Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974), Benton’s KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979), and Farhadi’s A SEPARATION (2011) come to mind. Baumbach’s latest belongs in that group. Even the “best” divorces – those where both sides end up better off – are a “loss” for both parties. At a minimum, it’s a loss of a once-in-time vision of life partnership. The division of assets is a cold term for the shredding of emotions. We are fine with whatever the adults decide as long as the priority for both is their young son who shouldn’t pay the price for their debacle … but certainly will, just as countless other children have. I’m only now able to write about this film after seeing it at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF). As a movie lover, I’m in awe of the acting and storytelling. As a human being, it temporarily destroyed me.

watch the trailer:


CHARLIE SAYS (2019)

May 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Author Joan Didion wrote “the 1960’s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969”, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that tragic night … actually two tragic nights (August 8 and 9) … there is no shortage of recollections and reenactments through both print and visual media. For anyone who was alive at the time or has read the story since, the grisly murders and cult commune lorded over by Charles Manson remains nearly beyond belief. Unfortunately, it’s all too real.

Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner previously collaborated on AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) and THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2015), and here, “inspired by” books from Karlene Faith (“The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult”, 2001) and Ed Sanders (“The Family”, 1972, also one of the film’s producers), we get a glimpse of the Manson cult through the eyes of the women, especially Leslie Van Houten. And let’s be honest, that’s where the real mystery is. A domineering, arrogant, white supremacist is not nearly as interesting as the story of how these women became so enchanted by him that they were willing (even anxious) to murder innocent people on his behalf.

Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) stars as Leslie Van Houten, nicknamed “LuLu” by Manson not long after they meet for the first time. We see Van Houten, Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) in an isolated cell block of a California Women’s Prison five years after the murders. They are going through therapy sessions with Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver, “Godless”) whose goal is to remind them of who they were before meeting Manson.

During the prison therapy sessions, we get flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch where Manson ruled over his followers which also included Mary Brunner (Suki Waterhouse), Squeaky Fromme (Kayli Carter), Linda Kasabian (India Ennenga), and of course, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford), who initially comes off as quite aloof, but eventually buys in totally – in a most violent manner. It’s these flashbacks that are meant to help us understand the brainwashing which stuck with these women through the crimes, through their trial, and through years of incarceration. We hear the “garbage dump” song. We hear about money and ego. We learn that ‘the new rules are no rules’. We see Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star shattered by music producer Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day) after his introduction from Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys drummer), who hung around the ranch sometimes. And we hear Manson’s rantings about the correlations between The Beatles’ White Album and the Bible, and about how a race war is coming (and it’s named Helter Skelter).

Matt Smith plays Charles Manson, and oddly enough, this comes on the heels of his playing artist Robert Mapplethorpe in MAPPLETHORPE (2018). Smith seems to have fun with the role, but it’s these segments that feel underwritten. We want more of an explanation of how this could happen. On the other hand, the therapy sessions in the prison actually provide more insight to the lasting effects of the man and the cult that brainwashed them right into committing cold-blooded murder and a life behind bars. The thankless job of a prison therapist becomes clear as Ms. Faith realizes that if she breaks the Manson spell, these women will be forced to live with the unimaginable atrocities they committed. For a different perspective, track down the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER that was based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book. It starred Steve Railsback as a terrifying Charles Manson.

watch the trailer:


WELCOME TO MARWEN (2018)

December 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The main thing to keep in mind while watching this movie is that it’s based on the true story of a real guy – Mark Hogancamp – and it’s also a dramatization designed to entertain, enlighten and even inspire. Most of the time it’s pretty discomforting to watch, but what would you expect with a grown man who spends his time creating and photographing fictional and fantasy-laden WWI scenes in the model-scale village he built in his backyard? And he frequently does so while wearing women’s shoes.

When we first meet Mark Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell), he is three years removed from a brutal and savage attack by a group of men outside a local bar. While intoxicated, and after having been called a derogatory term, Mark confessed to the men that he sometimes wears women’s shoes. Not long after, he was being pummeled to near death in the parking lot. When Hogancamp awoke from the coma, he had no memory of his past, no taste for alcohol (he had been an alcoholic), and a shaky hand that prevented him from continuing to earn a living as an illustrator.

In his new world of mental and physical challenges, Mark does manage to tap into his artistic side and deal with his trauma in quite an unusual manner. He creates a WWII era Belgian village named Marwen – fused by his first name and that of Wendy, a neighbor he was quite fond of. Using dolls and action figures and other accessories found at the local hobby shop, Mark sets up elaborate battle sequences that feature the German SS standing in for his attackers outside the bar, and a battalion of courageous machine-gun toting ladies who protect US Air Force Captain Hoagie (a stand-in for Mark himself). He is also haunted by Deja Thoris, who he calls the Belgian Witch of Marwen.

Director Robert Zemeckis has long capitalized on unusual visuals and special effects in his films such as FORREST GUMP, BACK TO THE FUTURE, THE POLAR EXPRESS, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and here he uses motion-capture for his excellent action sequences. Rather than the lifelike images we’ve come to expect with motion-capture, Zemeckis and his team allow the figures to keep a touch of their doll-like attributes, so that we easily distinguish between reality and Mark’s fantasy escapes.

Opening with an action packed and vivid battle sequence, we slowly pull back through the viewfinder on Mark’s camera to see him and get our first glimpse at Marwen and its inhabitants. In time, each of the characters is unveiled – real life person and the Marwen counterpart (doll). The tough-as-nails women are Diane Kruger as Deja Thoris (Belgian Witch), Gwendoline Christie as Anna the visiting nurse, Janelle Monae as Julie the physical therapist, Merritt Weaver (“Godless”) as Roberta the hobby shop owner, Elza Gonzalez as Carlala and Mark’s meatball-making co-worker, Leslie Zemeckis (the director’s wife) as Suzette, Stephanie von Pfetten as Wendy (of Marwen fame), and Leslie Mann as new neighbor Nicol.

The screenplay was co-written by Caroline Thompson and director Zemeckis, and the dramatization effects could be noted if compared to the 2010 documentary MARWENCOL (the doc explains the truth behind the full town name) which details Mark’s story. It was a 2000 attack that left him in a coma for 9 days, and resulted in his transition to photography and war reenactments as a form of therapy. His photography is so exceptional that Mr. Hogancamp is featured in gallery showings and publications. In the film, we see his attempts to face his accusers in court, and how he was finally able to personally come to grips with his own shame and guilt in regards to the hate crime that changed his life.

As if the actual story doesn’t provide enough strange elements, director Zemeckis adds a few dashes of bizarre by having Nazis that come back to life, a time machine so similar to the BACK TO THE FUTURE Delorean that we can’t help but smile, a bell tower scene seemingly taken straight from Hitchcock’s VERTIGO … including a fall and landing that recalls THE OMEN. There is also Julie London’s surreal version of “Yummy Yummy Yummy”, and enough women’s shoes to stock a department store. Mark’s story is simultaneously tragic, unconventional, deserving of empathy, romantic, heart-breaking, redeeming, twisted, and uplifting. It’s rare for a feel-good movie to leave us feeling so ‘not good’ due to its nature, but I am still not sure I’ve fully evaluated what was presented.

watch the trailer: