Hustlers (2019)

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Cast: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B

Screenplay: Lorene Scafaria

110 mins. Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity.

 

I recall the surprise that surrounded Hustlers when it turned from a movie that no one really had much faith in to a critic-beloved darling of a film. It was so shocking to find that it wasn’t garbage, and I was suddenly interested in seeing it after thinking it looked it absolute garbage. I did get a chance to actually see the movie, and I was surprised, but how?

The year is 2007, and stripper Destiny (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians, TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is working to make money and support her grandmother when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, Gigli, Second Act), an experienced stripper who seemingly captivates everyone in the audience. The two women form a close friendship and things go well for awhile, until the financial crisis forces them to reevaluate their plans. Destiny is invited to join Ramona and two other women as they hunt down rich men, seduce and drug them, and take their money. This plan is quite successful, but like all stories of crime, this one is headed for an unfortunate ending.

Let me start out by saying that, overall, I think it’s a good movie. I’m not praising it as an Oscar-worthy film by any means, but it’s good. I think director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, This is Heaven) does the real standout work here. Her film has a style that is quite engaging, taking a story that I feel is a little simple and turning it into something more fascinating. Her screenplay showcases a group of women that become selfish Robin Hoods, robbing the rich and keeping it for themselves until they become the very people who they target. It’s a fascinating story, even if it falls into cliche as it goes on.

The cast, particularly Wu and Lopez, do quite well in showing the radicals of women in their situation, desperation to greed to desperation again. Wu and Lopez have solid chemistry together and they’re both engaging onscreen. The less said about Lizzo (UglyDolls) and Cardi B’s performance, the better though.

Stripping is a talent and skill, and in order for the film to work, the stripping scenes had to be authentic, and it appears that the cast was trained well in translating this skill to the screen with precision. Lopez took this very seriously, even installing a pole at home and visiting strip clubs with her husband to research.

Hustlers is a fun little crime thriller with some front-and-center solid work from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez and solid direction from Lorene Scafaria. The script is a little lackluster but overall, this is a fun experience that surprised me by being good at all, and I’m fine with good.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2020oscardeathrace] Walk Run Cha-Cha (2019)

Director: Laura Nix

Cast: Chipaul Cao, Millie Cao, Maksym Kapitanchuk

Screenplay: Laura Nix

20 mins. Not Rated.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Short Subject [PENDING]

 

Walk Run Cha-Cha is another Oscar-nominated short doc, this one a bit lighter fair than the others, focused on a couple, Paul and Millie Cao, who suffered in their younger years dealing with the fallout of the Vietnam War, who have now discovered, in their older years, an affinity for dancing.

This short documentary, written and directed by Laura Nix (The Politics of Fur, Inventing Tomorrow), chronicles both Paul and Millie’s background, the journey that brought them together, that brought them to America. It also looks at what brought them to dance, a mutual love they have both found. Initially, the doc, while entertaining and interesting, seems a little simplistic. Why this doc short for the Oscar?

It’s only upon seeing the climax that Nix builds the story to, a choreographed presentation made by this couple that accentuates their craft, their feelings for one another, and their feelings toward the dance. It’s a powerful, moving, and beautifully shot sequence that drives the whole film home in an elegant and memorable way.

Walk Run Cha-Cha does not reinvent the wheel, but it’s a moving and beautiful story that showcases a love that we should all hope to achieve in life. Aided by terrific pacing and an interesting set of subjects, this is a lovely story worth watching.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2020oscardeathrace] Life Overtakes Me (2019)

Director: John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson

Cast: Henry Ascher, Nadja Hatem, Mikael Billing

39 mins. Not Rated.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Short Subject [PENDING]

 

Okay, I’ll be real. I didn’t know anything about Resignation Syndrome. This was all new to me, and in that way, Life Overtakes Me was a real learning experience.

Life Overtakes Me, from directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson (Tokyo Waka, Barn Dance), chronicles refugees searching for sanctuary and the children dealing with the trauma caused by uncertainty. The children in these families have internally shut down into a sleep-like state, almost comatose, and the documentary shows how the families are forced to deal with the situation and pray for the best.

As I said above, I’ve never heard of Resignation Syndrome until seeing this, and it’s both an interesting view at this condition and also perhaps a little too simplistic of a look. It doesn’t delve deep enough to really be effective, but I was quite interested in the subject material. I just wanted more.

Life Overtakes Me was effective in breaking my heart, and I think it’s a very timely piece. Especially now, in America, looking at the way our country treats newcomers and people looking for safety and security in a new land, this short absolutely sickened me. I keep thinking about our borders and all the children dealing with trauma and it haunts me.

This short film, while not as in-depth as I would have liked, was still a strong viewing experience. Hell, it’s on Netflix, you have no excuse to ignore this 40-minute lesson in something I doubt many people even know of. Check this one out when you can. It’s worth you time, and it may just get you thinking.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

[#2020oscardeathrace] For Sama (2019)

Director: Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts

Cast: Waad Al-Kateab, Hamza Al-Kateab, Sama Al-Kateab

96 mins. Rated TV-14.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature [PENDING]

 

There’s been a lot of cinema in recent years about the conflict in Syria, and many documentaries have presented unique filmmaker voices spread across the area. One of the more recent and unique voices comes from filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, who documented her life in Syria from 2012 to 2017, from falling in love to getting married to having a child, Sama. The film is made as a video journal intended for Sama to understand exactly what Waad and husband Hamza had to get through in order to survive.

This is another hard-hitting documentary look at the situation in Syria. It was incredibly hard to watch, much as the other documentaries have been, but this one was all the more effective because it follows life, day-to-day, and families, or the potential fracturing of family. I cannot begin to understand the world that Waad and her family existed in, the kind of difficult choices that had to be made in order to survive and live. People need to be able to live their lives, or life just isn’t worth living, and the love letter that Waad tells to her child is so tense and frustrating.

For Sama is an excellent time capsule from Syria, a tale of family, that is jarring and painful to watch, but it contains small moments of beauty as well. The film runs on a little long, even for an 86-minute film, but it works quite well at examining Syria from a different viewpoint. Check it out when you can, the film can be discovered for free care of PBS.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2020oscardeathrace] Honeyland (2019)

Director: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

Cast: Hatidze Muratova

86 mins. Not Rated.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best International Feature Film [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature [PENDING]

 

Fun little bit of Oscars trivia for you. No film has ever gotten nominations for both Best International Feature Film and Best Documentary Feature…until Honeyland. There, you learned something reading this review.

Honeyland was filmed over the course of three years, chronicling the story of Hatidze Muratova, a women living in the wild mountains of Macedonia and operating an ancient beekeeping lifestyle, one that seems to be based on a symbiotic relationship between humans and bees. By not taking more than is necessary, she is able to successfully maintain an almost endless supply of honey, but when a family moves into the area nearby and attempts to get in on the honey money, Hatidze finds her world forever changed.

Honeyland is a powerful view of a world I’ve never seen. Hatidze’s world at the beginning is nicely juxtaposed with her world after the moving in of the new family, who seem to not understand this symbiotic relationship with the bees that Hatidze gains from. It features some of the most incredible real footage of her world in Macedonia.

Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent three years recording footage and molding it to fit this fairly-tight narrative, and that intimate closeness between the directors and their subjects creates a truly in-depth and emotion-laden story. It was heartbreaking to see Hatidze dealing with her ailing mother while simultaneously striving to survive her work and the competing work of the new family.

Honeyland is very worth watching. It’s one of the best documentaries of the year and also one of the best international films of the year. I highly suggest you take this spiritual journey of a woman and nature and check the film out as soon as possible.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2020oscardeathrace] Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

Director: Joachim Rønning

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Leslie Manville, Michelle Pfeiffer

Screenplay: Linda Woolverton, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster

119 mins. Rated PG for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling [PENDING]

 

I was genuinely interested in Maleficent when it came out back in 2014. I liked the idea that Disney was taking a different route with their live-action adaptations by focusing on the villain. It’s an overall rough move, but I admired the attempt. Unfortunately, that was all for naught, as Disney merely decided to make Maleficent (Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted, Kung Fu Panda 3) into the hero and make the King an evil bad guy. It was a disappointing move that essentially turned Maleficent into a film that didn’t work. Now, some years later, Disney is going back into the world of Maleficent with a sequel, and to be fair, the trailers seemed quite intriguing. But would Mistress of Evil be a course-correction, turning Maleficent into the villain we all know her to be, or is this another misfire?

Five years have passed since the death of the evil King Stefan, Maleficent has been protecting the Moors with Aurora (Elle Fanning, Super 8, A Rainy Day in New York) serving as Queen. When Prince Phillip from Ulstead proposes marriage to Aurora, Maleficent is forced to play nice when meeting Phillip’s parents, King John and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray, Avengers: Endgame). That plan goes south when Ingrith creates toxicity at their first dinner together, manipulating the situation to make Maleficent look like the evil creature that the people of Ulstead believe her to be. She flees but is attacked by Ingrith’s soldiers and is injured, rescued at the last second by a winged creature who looks similar to her. Now, with Maleficent in hiding and Ingrith twisting the narrative, it would appear that there’s no stopping an all-out war between the humans and the magical creatures, and it’s up to Maleficent to stop it.

Apart from the obvious question of “Who Was Asking for Maleficent 2?” comes the realization that, to a lesser extent, this follow-up repeats the same mistakes as the original. Again, we have a marketing campaign selling us on Maleficent, the Mistress of Evil, one of the greatest villains in history, and the movie is Maleficent Lite, the “Diet Coke of Evil” as Mike Myers once put it. Yet again, we have an opportunity to see a hero turn to darkness, and yet again, the decision is made to keep her heroic. This film rides the line a little better than before, but it still keeps Maleficent heroic.

The performances are all just fine, specifically Jolie, Fanning, and Pfeiffer, but I feel like the writing for Queen Ingrith intrudes on Pfeiffer’s performance, making her a little mustache-twirly at times. I don’t get her motivation as a villain considering how the first film framed Maleficent, and I need more from her character to showcase why she has it out for Maleficent.

Outside of all that, some of the action is fun even though this movie is so CGI-heavy that it’s tough to take any of it seriously. The CGI is just a little too glossy. It’s enjoyable enough, and what can I say, it’s a better movie than its predecessor, but not by much.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a poor title for this film considering Disney isn’t actually willing to make a story about the real villain and chooses to sugarcoat this story making the villain into the hero…yet again. It’s disappointing because this sequel just feels like broken promises stretched into two hours. I think there are people that will enjoy it, and I believe it is a wholly better film than the first one, but I don’t think we need this franchise to continue.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, click here.

[#2020oscardeathrace] Knives Out (2019)

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer

Screenplay: Rian Johnson

131 mins. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]

 

When it was announced that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) would be making a murder mystery before returning to helm a trilogy of Star Wars films (I’m still convinced this will happen, but maybe it’s just my wanting), I was shocked but rather interested. After all, the subgenre of Agatha Christie-inspired murder mysteries had kind of dried in recent years outside of adaptations of her work like Murder on the Orient Express. Rian Johnson, who had dealt in the mystery genre several years earlier with Brick, seemed like the perfect choice to restart this once beloved subgenre, and I was all for it.

Famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, Beginners, The Last Full Measure) is dead. The death has been ruled a suicide, but someone unknown has hired the last great sleuth, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale, Logan Lucky) to investigate. It would seem that Harlan had no true friends within his family, and each of them has a motive strong enough to be a suspect, but just who did it? As lies are created and truths are uncovered, the family is turns on one another, and it’s up to Blanc to find the donut hole, the missing piece of the story.

Where to begin with this film? First off, we have to address Johnson’s tone for the film. It’s fun, sarcastic, stylish, and engaging. He sets most of the action in one location, Harlan’s mansion, a gorgeously-designed set that I just wanted to spend more time in. There are homages all throughout the mansion designed to invoke that classic mystery theme. Plus, it’s just a damn creepy house. Beyond that, the house and the characters residing in it feel real within the universe Johnson has constructed. The house feels lived-in. The characters feel like they have long lists of experiences to pull from. Everything fits, like puzzle pieces expertly placed to give a  clearer image and a staggering conclusion.

Daniel Craig leads the cast as Blanc with a truly molasses-mouth scene-chewing take on his character that is set to become iconic in years to come. His mannerisms, speech patterns, and physicality make Benoit Blanc a treat to be with, and that’s much like the mansion. I wanted to spend time with these characters. Not in the way that they are friendly, but in the way that they are fun to watch.

Each of the members of Thrombey’s extended family is like a slightly-damaged, partially-fractured chess piece arranged on a board, and Johnson is playing against himself. I was primarily taken with Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049, The Informer) as Marta, Harlan’s nurse, who feels alienated within the family even though they all claim that she’s a part of it. Then there is Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies, Halloween) and her husband Richard (Vault, TV’s Miami Vice), who play very well on their own but have a dynamite chemistry when put together.

In fact, the cast is pitch-perfect, and there’s no real time to talk about all of them, but I have to give a shout to Chris Evans (The Avengers, The Read Sea Diving Resort) as Ransom, Harlan’s grandson, the loud-mouthed privileged youth who obviously has no friends within the family. Evans plays against-type when compared to his decade as Captain America with Ransom, and it’s a welcome return to the smarmy roles he was once more well-known for.

If there’s a flaw in the film, and I do believe there is one for me, it’s that certain reveals in the film happen far earlier than I would have liked, and I think the mystery would have been stronger if we were kept wondering for longer. That, and I personally was able to see where it was going a little earlier than I would’ve liked. Perhaps I was just good at guessing, as I’ve spoken to others who did not see the end coming. My suggestion would be not to try and unravel the mystery, but instead, enjoy the journey, because it’s a damn good one.

Knives Out is an elegantly-constructed Whodunnit with incredible performances, great production design, and a director at the helm who really understands story and tone. This was enjoyable as hell and I cannot wait to see it again. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out comes highly recommended.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, click here.

[#2020oscardeathrace] Richard Jewell (2019)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Paul Walter Hauser

Screenplay: Billy Ray

131 mins. Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role [Kathy Bates] [PENDING]

 

Director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, The 15:17 to Paris) is back again with another true life tale, this time surrounding the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing and the aftermath. It’s interesting that Eastwood’s films just kind of show up with a trailer for a movie I didn’t even know existed, and I loved the trailer for this one, so I was quite eager to see it. I only hoped that the film would live up to the hype.

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya, Late Night) is a security guard tasked with patrolling Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games. On July 27th, Richard discovers a suspicious package at the park and he makes a call that saves many lives when the package is revealed to be a bomb. Richard is seen as a hero. But FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm, Between Two Ferns: The Movie, TV’s Mad Men) believes that Richard may have actually been the man who placed the bomb in Centennial Park. Add to that the story published on the front page of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution written by Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde, Tron: Legacy, Life Itself) revealing that Jewell is a suspect, and suddenly Richard is no longer the hero but the prime suspect in the eyes of members of the public, the United States government, and the media. Enter Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, Moon, TV’s Fosse/Verdon), an attorney who befriended Jewell a decade prior, who is out to protect Jewell’s rights and, hopefully, keep him out of jail.

Paul Walter Hauser may not be a bankable leading man, but he knocks his performance out of the park here. I’ve been a fan of Hauser’s since I, Tonya, and he was a standout in BlacKkKlansman and several other films, but he’s at the forefront here, and he does not disappoint.

Hauser is also surrounded by a bevy of big-screen talent. Kathy Bates (Misery, The Highwaymen) portrays Bobi Jewell, Richard’s mother, and while she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she makes use of it, culminating in a powerful scene that earned her an Oscar nomination. Rockwell is also at the top of his game as Bryant, a man trying to help his friend who seemingly doesn’t understand the politics of his situation. Richard keeps saying the wrong thing and Bryant’s biggest battle is not against the FBI or the media but actually changing Richard’s mindset into that of a fighter.

On the opposite side of things, I really didn’t like the characters of Tom Shaw and Kathy Scruggs. From the writing and characterization to the directing, I was unimpressed with these two antagonists that were reduced to mustache-twirling stock villains. I don’t really get Shaw’s motivation for targeting Richard Jewell, and I feel like Scruggs has a motivation, but it’s never really confirmed and only ever inferred. Much love for Hamm and Wilde who did the best with the material, but these were bad characters.

There’s another small detail of the film that took me out of it. Recently, there’s been a trend of using real footage in films based on true events. Several films have enacted this idea, perhaps in an attempt to remind us as viewers that this actually happened, but it only serves to take me out of the film and remind me that I’m watching a recreation. It happens in when an interview between Richard and Katie Couric occurs that uses Hauser’s voice but real footage of Jewell, and I really don’t like it. It loses the realness and the concoction of the actor voice and the subject visual really doesn’t work. It is a small moment, but it does detract from the viewing experience.

I think that Richard Jewell is a fine film, but it suffers from a lack of elements that draw in the viewer. I liked several pieces of the puzzle, but the way Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Gemini Man) deal with their antagonists absolutely falls flat. Hauser is at the top of his game here as is Bates and Rockwell, and overall they keep the film moving in a mostly-satisfying way. This is still one worth seeing, but it feels like the overall impact of the film is missing.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, click here.

[#2020oscardeathrace] A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Director: Marielle Heller

Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper

Screenplay: Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue

109 mins. Rated PG.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role [Tom Hanks] [PENDING]

 

After the success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it seemed certain that we would see a Mr. Rogers biopic. I became surprised that we hadn’t already gotten one in the years following his death, but I learned that his estate was primarily concerned with getting it as accurate as possible, and so when it was announced that Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) would be directing the biopic with Tom Hanks (Cast Away, Toy Story 4) playing Mr. Rogers, it seemed to be perfect, but could Hanks pull it off?

In 1998, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, The Report, TV’s The Americans), a journalist for Esquire magazine, is tasked with profiling Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for an issue on heroes. Lloyd’s at a place in his life where he’s known for his cynical and scathing pieces of journalism, and he’s not too keen on writing about Mr. Rogers, but he begrudgingly accepts. Over several meetings, Lloyd and Fred learn quite a lot about each other, and Fred is determined to understand his interviewer and help him come to terms with his past.

I cannot begin to discuss the merits of this film without giving a whole lot of credit to Tom Hanks and his performance as Mr. Rogers. There are a few different ways that Hanks could have approached playing the iconic personality. The worst of these ways would have been to attempt an impersonation of Fred Rogers. Hanks avoids this by purely studying the mannerisms, inflection, and tone of the character and apply it to his performance. No one can be Fred Rogers, and Hanks plays the spirit of who Mr. Rogers is.

The decision made by the screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, The Motel Life), to focus on a single story of friendship instead of a straight-up biopic was a great choice. I’m so sick of by-the-numbers checklist biopics. I want to see a story. That’s what we get here. It also works since most everyone who has an interest in the life story can watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and get all that. Using Lloyd Vogel as the lens through which we view Mr. Rogers creates an accessibility that really works for understanding Fred Rogers as a human being.

Another benefit of telling a singular story is that director Marielle Heller is able to experiment and really let her artistry shine. She constructs a dream-like quality by creating a framing device that also lets us see Lloyd through Fred’s eyes as well. She also expanded upon the diner scene in the film, and I don’t want to get into the details of it, but that sequence because I want you to experience it for yourself, but it’s the moment that elevates this film to another level.A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is another outstanding feature from Marielle Heller that contains another stunner of a performance from Tom Hanks. This unforgettable film experience is well worth your time, even if you think you know the whole story…so sing it with me:

“Won’t you please, won’t you please,
Please won’t you see this movie?”

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, click here.

[#2020oscardeathrace] Marriage Story (2019)

Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever

Screenplay: Noah Baumbach

137 mins. Rated R for language throughout and sexual references.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role [Scarlett Johansson] [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role [Adam Driver] [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role [Laura Dern] [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score) [PENDING]

IMDb Top 250: #194 (as of 1/14/2020)

 

It must be a pretty good feeling to live in the Baumbach/Gerwig household right now, with writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories) and his wife, writer/director Greta Gerwig, both having films in the Best Picture race for Marriage Story and Little Women, respectively. It definitely raises the odds for them.

Marriage Story is the tale of a marriage at its end, focusing on the downward spiral between husband and wife Charlie (Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Dead Don’t Die) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Her, Sing). It’s also a love story that uses the pain of divorce to highlight the beautiful moments that the relationship gave them both. As Charlie starts to see the mistakes he makes with not listening to his wife’s needs, Nicole finds herself down the career path she’s always wanted, and they find that they are going in different directions. Charlie struggles to find adequate representation for the divorce proceedings while Nicole hires a shark attorney, Nora (Laura Dern, Jurassic Park, TV’s Big Little Lies). While Charlie and Nicole both want the process to go as painlessly as possible, they find that they are in a system designed to turn their divorce into a war zone.

Marriage Story accomplishes something that is incredible in its storytelling, but it also makes it look easy. Baumbach is able to tell a story about divorce that is, at its core, a love story. Similar to how Taika Waititi told a story about hate that became a story about love with Jojo Rabbit, Baumbach is able to use tragic circumstances to really show how powerful its inverse is. Using his own real-life divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh as a guide, he crafts a screenplay that gives us equal moments of sadness and joy, and his direction is simple enough to focus on his powerhouse performers.

Speaking of powerhouses, I love that everyone in the film is firing on all cylinders here. Driver and Johansson have such great chemistry and they don’t try to out-act the other, instead letting each other have their moments of grandness amidst the strain, struggle, and fighting. There’s a scene near the end of the film that features the two stars in a contentious conversation that is one of the most well-acted scenes of the decade.

Even the supporting cast is spectacular. From the likely-winner Best Supporting Actress Laura Dern to Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, TV’s Shades of Blue) and Alan Alda (Bridge of Spies, TV’s M*A*S*H) who play potential lawyers for Charlie, everyone in this film is pitch-perfect, and again, none of them are competing for the spotlight. That’s key here. Everyone is as good as they need to be while also supporting the other players. It’s a real teamwork-heavy acting showcase.

Marriage Story is not a happy film even if it is a beautiful one. It plays with the inverse of a marriage crumbling but also seeing all the beauty that the marriage brought in a fascinating way. With an opening that feels like Pixar’s Up, this movie should have had investors from Kleenex because it will break your heart and then tape it back together. While it runs a little longer than it needs to be, it’s a fascinating case study of a relationship that I cannot recommend enough.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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