Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 December 2019

Partial December Movie Round-up

Jay Roach's Bombshell is the movie about Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and what I assume is a (fictional and likeable) version of Tomi Lahren. They're women who work at Fox News, and the plot of Bombshell is the takedown of Fox News head Roger Ailes.

You know how this ends. In fact, you probably know a lot about this story of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and rank misogyny.

Bombshell takes a jaunty, slightly mocking tone with this story – in the vein of The Big Short and Vice. This movie is (and I am not the first person to say this) better than Vice but not as good as The Big Short. Even more, there's something about the way this particular Brechtian film works that makes the facts of the story seem like they might actually be fictional, or at least exaggerated. A part of that has to do with the fact that this is a story about Fox News, which is a "news" outlet that cannot be trusted even to report the actual news. The other reason for this is that what happens at Fox already feels so absurd and insane. The real people are themselves over the top and seem slightly unhinged. As a result, even if the events portrayed in the film actually happened, one has the feeling that what is happening can't totally be trusted.

But the acting is pretty great. Charlize Theron is doing a strange but compelling impersonation of Megyn Kelly (the voice isn't quite right, but I didn't really mind), and Nicole Kidman's Gretchen Carlson is less of an impersonation than a powerful interpretation. Kidman is best in show, but Margot Robbie, Kate MacKinnon, Holland Taylor, Allison Janney, Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Mark Duplass, Robin Weigert, and Malcolm McDowell are all great. For me, John Lithgow's Roger Ailes felt a little cartoony, but, as I say, the whole of Bombshell is a little cartoony, so this is perhaps not quite a fair criticism of his performance as such. Obviously the film hates this character, and so it's a difficult one to play.

Bombshell works, but it does feel a bit shallow. There are clear good guys in this movie and clear bad guys. There's also a right thing to do, and that is never really interrogated in this movie. In fact, not much is interrogated in this movie. It's a movie with a clear winner and a clear morality and not a lot of room for nuance. I think it could have benefited from a bit of that missing nuance. I would've liked a bit more interrogation into Fox News itself as a purveyor of misogyny, racism, and homophobia and how those values intersect and contribute to the sexual exploitation of women. It might also have been interesting to go the other way and explore this story alongside of the other enormous #MeToo stories. This felt a bit like fuel for a leftist fire already ablaze and not a serious exploration of sexual harrassment, the 24-hour news cycle, the values of television, the values of American Conservatism, or anything else.

I don't want to knock Bombshell too much because it has quite a few redeeming qualities, but it doesn't set out to do very much.

Oscar: I think we're looking at probably three acting nominations. Screenplay seems likely, as well. And film editing. Makeup & Hairstyling is also a fairly obvious nomination (and likely win – Theron looks amazing). So... 6.

* * *

I loved Marriage Story. The title is an intriguing sleight of hand: this is, of course, a divorce story. But Baumbach makes the brilliant choice to begin his movie with all of the tiny things that this couple loves about one another, and so the film starts with us understanding just how much the two main characters belong together – just how much they worked. And then 8 minutes into the movie, we understand that they're already at each other's throats.

Totally generous to the two people at its center, Marriage Story also felt (at least to me) as though it didn't choose sides. At its ugliest moments, the film is also at its most compassionate. But Baumbach's movie is also beautifully calibrated and balanced between very funny broad comedy, incisive and clever satire, and serious drama. It switches modes expertly and with complete confidence. It's heartbreaking and silly and bright and sober, one right after the other.

It's interesting to me that the clip of the film that went viral that everyone was mocking – the fight in Adam Driver's apartment – hit me as the emotional climax of the film. Folks laughed, but I knew nothing of their mockery and I found this sequence absolutely heartbreaking.

The acting is also wonderful. Laura Dern has a flashy role as a razor-sharp, not-to-be-trusted lawyer, and Ray Liotta as her rival is wonderful. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both excellent. I've never loved either of them more.

Oscar: Three acting nominations here, too. Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Director. I think that's probably all, but that's a lot: 6.

* * *

I really didn't like Little Women. In the first place, we don't need a fourth adaptation of this book. The most recent one (25 years old now) was just fine. In the second place, Greta Gerwig's adaptation attempts to work against its source material basically for its entire running time, as though it wants to say that what is basically a non-feminist story is actually feminist. This movie apologizes for its source material. Gerwig has created a kind of frame for the movie so that she can comment on the way the original story works. This isn't a terrible idea, but it does lead me to wonder why she wanted to adapt this novel in the first place. It felt to me as though she was trying to save the novel or redeem it.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as always, as are Timothée Chalamet and Laura Dern. Florence Pugh, however, is insanely miscast. She is supposed to be playing a thirteen year old and she looks about thirty throughout the movie. Her portrayal of Amy March has the largest arc – especially because Gerwig's Little Women wants to redeem Amy and make her into a likable character. (I saw this with a group of friends, and we all remembered refusing to forgive Amy when we originally read the book.) Pugh plays a very bratty young teenager and it's mostly cringe-worthy. She is also really the only character who changes a great deal over the long timespan the film covers, and so she stands out strangely.

Gerwig's film, in fact, has a lot of trouble with the way it manages time. It jumps back and forth in time in ways that don't always work and frequently feel unnatural or forced. The folks I was with found these jumps confusing, but maybe because I read the book so many times as a kid (at least 8; queer childhood is real), I was never really lost. I did find all of the jumps frustrating, though. The adaptation is already doing a kind of greatest hits of the novel's most important emotional moments, and the jumping back and forth just drew attention to the way the film already functioned as a highlight reel.

The supporting cast is mostly good. Chris Cooper has some great scenes; Louis Garrel is perfectly cast. Tracy Letts is excellently bombastic. I didn't like the young woman who played Beth; she was outshone by the other sisters, even though we keep being told (confusingly) that Beth is "the best" sister. In fact, here's one example where, for me, the film wants to have its feminist cake and eat it too. How is Beth "the best of us"? According to what criteria?

I submit that Beth is "the best" according to the criteria of traditional Victorian womanhood, in which she is selfless, caring, nurturing, loving, shy, sexless, without desires of almost any kind except for her family, and she is mostly silent. She has a good heart and doesn't think of herself, and she wants nothing in return for the gifts she gives to others. Now, I don't particularly object to any of these qualities, but my twenty-first-century attitudes toward gender don't allow me to think this makes Beth into "the best". But Louisa May Alcott does think that Beth is objectively the best. In Alcott's novel, Beth is figured as too perfect to exist in the world. It seems to me that Gerwig, too, objects to ideas like this, but maybe not quite enough for my taste. The new film cherry-picks the feminist values the novel has, but retains plenty of other outdated values that I chafed against as a twenty-first-century viewer. Gerwig's film is, thus, confusing in the way it deals with Alcott's value system. Rather than rethink the novel and really change the content so that she could give us a new version of Little Women, to my mind she keeps too much of Alcott's original. She splits the difference and tries to have it both ways. For me this didn't work.

Oscar: I think Saoirse Ronan will get a Best Actress nomination. I think the film will also get an original score nomination. The Art Directors Guild and the Costume Designers Guild both have ignored Little Women, so I would say those nominations feel unlikely at this stage. Makeup & Hairstyling is still a possibility. I say we are looking at 3.

* * *

I really liked the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems. It's an uncomfortable film in that what one does is watch the film's main character (played brilliantly by Adam Sandler) fuck up for the entirety of the movie. He just. Keeps. Fucking. Up. Again and again. This is an intensely frustrating but also just plain intense screenplay. Things are going terribly, and this fool cannot seem to right himself. He makes mistake after mistake and there doesn't seem to be a way of making things right and finding balance of some kind.

Sandler is so excellent. And Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, and (especially) Eric Bogosian are also very, very good.

This is a crime caper, so you have to like things like that in order to like this movie. I love crime films, but I am not sure if I would call Uncut Gems enjoyable. I don't know. It's hard to talk about it. The movie is plainly very, very good, and it's also hard to shake after it's over. But it's just so rough to watch. 

Oscar: I really hope Sandler gets a Best Actor nomination. Screenplay seems likely. I think that may be it, however. I am guessing 2.

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