[#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

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Director: Taika Waititi

Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson

Screenplay: Taika Waititi

108 mins. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language.

 

From the moment I first heard that Writer/Director/Actor Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) was planning on writing, directing, and acting in a Nazi comedy about a boy with an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler, and that Waititi would be playing Hitler, I was immediately concerned, confused, and a little unsure what to think. Then, the first still came out, and it didn’t really help. In my mind, I’ve never been let down by Waititi, but it’s a tall order to accomplish something like Jojo Rabbit. Thankfully, wonderfully, Waititi is able to do the impossible yet again, making a film about hate that becomes about so much more.

Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) doesn’t have many friends outside of his buddy Yorki and his imaginary friend, Adolf. When he attends a Hitler youth training camp, he hopes to impress Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, Moon, TV’s Fosse/Verdon) by showing off his fierceness and prowess, but things do not go the way he plans. His mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Her, Sing) seems to have an alternative idea of the war and Nazism, but she hides it. Jojo learns that’s not all she hides when he comes across a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace, The King), in a hidden space in her room. As Jojo struggles with how to treat his treasonous mother and the girl in the crawl space, he is forced to make a choice that could alter everything he’s ever known.

It’s been stated a lot, but the first ten minutes of this movie made me pretty uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the very way it sets up the world of wartime Germany near the end of WWII. It puts you right in Jojo’s world, and that world was not one I felt okay being in until the plot really started to move. Davis does good work in his first major role as Jojo. It’s a tough character because even though he’s a child and seemingly doesn’t know any better, he’s still a Nazi child. His worldview has been painted for him with signs of Jewish evil and demons and some truly disturbing things. It’s not an easy viewing and even though it has some really funny moments, it’s also a movie I felt strange for laughing during.

As with a film like 1917, which I recently reviewed here, Davis is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast, ranging from Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect, Isn’t It Romantic) as Fräulein Rahm, an instructor at the youth camp (the best she’s ever been), to Alfie Allen (John Wick, TV’s Game of Thrones) as Finkel, the second-in-command to Rockwell’s Klenzendorf, who finally gets to stretch some comedic muscles and does a very fine job. Rockwell is awesome in this movie, and he yet again excels at playing those fringe characters who are really bad guys but he puts an emotional spin on them to really connect with the audience.

It is Waititi’s Adolf that is most interesting in that he’s playing an imaginary friend who looks like Hitler but is very much just a visage of Jojo’s interpretation of how Hitler would be to him, a child. Waititi’s portrayal of this imaginary friend rides the line very nicely between silliness and seriousness, and he’s essentially just Jojo, so it never felt like an out-of-place idea to have Hitler appearing in the film.

I can’t think of anyone else that can make a movie quite like Taika Waititi. His eye is unique and his style works well with certain stories. With Jojo Rabbit, he mines real-world events and circumstances for comedy, pointing out the ridiculousness of the beliefs that Jojo has, and he pushes them into the audience consciousness. He views wartime Germany as a bustling and more happy place that most films have chosen to, but it makes sense. To Jojo and the other townspeople, they are really winning, whether they really believe it or not, their wanting to believe it is too strong for most. There is a bubbling-under-the-surface fear that is present and permeating, and that foreboding feeling like things will not turn out that way, but it’s covered in a layer of liveliness, something that we don’t usually get in these types of films.

Jojo Rabbit is surprisingly good, but after this any hits, it’s tough to doubt Taika Waititi’s abilities in any way. He has consistently made great films across his career, and Jojo Rabbit is no exception. This isn’t always the happiest viewing experience (Waititi mixes tones elegantly enough to hit hard when the film requires it), and I found myself more nervous-laughing than downright bellying over with giggles, but that’s not what this film requires. What it does require is your attention, though. Go see Jojo Rabbit as soon as you can.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, click here.

For my review of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, click here.

The Addams Family (2019)

Director: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon

Cast: Oscar Issac, Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney

Screenplay: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler, Erica Rivinoja

86 mins. Rated PG for macabre and suggestive humor, and some action.

 

I never really liked the idea of an animated version of The Addams Family. I just always felt like The Addams Family always looked better and worked better as a live-action film, especially when you high-calibre talent like Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Charlize Theron (Monster, Atomic Blonde), who could both look and embody the characters of Gomez and Morticia Addams. But I nevertheless went into this new Addams Family with an open-mind because I love the franchise and characters.

The Addams family are not, by definition, normal, but that doesn’t stop the from living life their own special way. As Gomez (Isaac) preps his son Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard, It, TV’s Carmen Sandiego) for the Addams rite of passage, the Mazurka, Morticia (Theron) tries to connect more with daughter Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz, Let Me In, Greta) as she feeds her curiosity surrounding the town in which they reside, especially the local school. All the while, local celebrity Margaux Needler (Allison Janney, The Help, Ma) is determined to rid town of the Addams family so that she can keep the town bright, shiny, and unchanged.

First of all, there’s too much going on in a film that’s as short as this one. I didn’t care about the Gomez/Pugsley/Mazurka storyline, and the Morticia/Wednesday plot has been done better. I also felt like the Margaux Needler storyline doesn’t really go anywhere interesting nor does it really end in a satisfying way. There’s just problems abound in this film.

The voice cast is all fantastic except for Nick Kroll (Sing, TV’s Big Mouth) as Uncle Fester. His is a situation of being poorly miscast.He’s a fine and funny voice actor, but I don’t think he worked well for this character.

The screenplay is the biggest fault of the film in that it doesn’t really do anything unique that makes this film memorable. For a movie like The Addams Family, it’s so forgettable.Outside of one sequence involving Wednesday in school doing frog dissection, the movie has no truly interesting scenes. It’s just a mixture of plot points that have been done in better adaptations. There is no new ground covered in this movie.

The Addams Family is a very poor first outing for this new incarnation of the beloved characters. It made enough money for a sequel, so here’s hoping they learn some new lessons here because this first installment is forgettable and very paint-by-numbers. Skip and just watch the old show or Barry Sonnenfeld films.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Rocketman (2019)

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Screenplay: Lee Hall

121 mins. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content.

 

It’s about damn time we got an Elton John biopic, and boy was this one worth the wait.

Elton John (Taron Egerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Sing), in classic biopic form, needs to go to rehab, and while he’s there, he recounts all the moves in his life that led him to this place, from his friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot, The Adventures of Tintin) to his explosive working relationship with music manager John Reid (Richard Madden, Ibiza, TV’s Game of Thrones). In his recollection, Elton begins to see that the biggest obstacle in his happiness might just be the reflection in the mirror.

Rocketman might just be the best musical biopic I’ve seen in a long time, and perhaps the best one, though I’m speaking as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it and just saw it. Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle, Sunshine on Leith) has seemingly craft a film that is equal parts musical extravagance and true life biopic storytelling. The events are somewhat incorrectly placed on a timeline, but it is done in the service of the character and the story, and I didn’t mind. What Fletcher does so well in this film and in previous work is that he has such a flair for making his style its own character without sacrificing the story and characters. His style has the similar effect as what Quentin Tarantino does with his musical choices. He uses them to aid his characters. If he has a flaw in the film (and it’s really only a nit-pick), it’s that he goes full classic biopic by having the main character recount his entire life in rehab, a move that almost feels cliché now, but I brushed past it.

Taron Egerton is on fire here. It’s his best performance of a small but impressive career. He owns the screen in every scene, aided by John’s impressive wardrobe (someone start talking Best Costume Design here), but it is his performance, a richly-layered look at Elton John on the inside and outside, that is the biggest takeaway from the film. He blends into Fletcher’s visual storytelling so well, and the chemistry between him and the supporting players is astounding. Then there’s the singing (Egerton does his own in the film), which, although not sounding exactly like Elton John, aids the character he is playing and has a real feeling to it that doesn’t feel like he’s just trying to match someone else. I’d rather have it this way.

The supporting cast does a great job when not overshadowed by the grandiose nature of Elton John. I really like Jamie Bell and it is great to see him get some impressive moments to shine in conversations with Egerton. Richard Madden needs to be in more movies after work in Game of Thrones and Bodyguard, and he plays John Reid in such a menacing and cruel way that works well without seeming completely mustache-twiddlingly villainous. Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World, A Dog’s Way Home) appears in the film in a physical transformation as Elton’s mother Sheila, and it’s some of her best work as well. Dexter Fletcher has a knack for collaborating and getting the absolute best from his actors, and it’s on full display here.

Rocketman has become my favorite film so far this year. It’s an impressive feat that showcases why filmmakers like Dexter Fletcher need to be getting more work, and it is a great standout performance from Egerton. See this one as soon as you can. This is one film we’ll be talking about for some time.

 

5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Bradley Cooper, Josh Brolin, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

181 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language.

 

Well, here it is. I’m going to try not to use the word culmination like everyone else has, but I cannot make any promises. This is the end of The Infinity Saga, the twenty-second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The culmination-dammit…

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes, Chef) is drifting through space with Nebula (Karen Gillan, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, TV’s Selfie). On Earth, what’s left of the Avengers have collected at the compound, unsure of what to do next. Thanos (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men, Deadpool 2) succeeded in his plan, obliterating half of the universe in a single snap of his fingers. As they each come to terms with the enormous loss that they and the universe have incurred, an old ally appears with an idea, a crazy crackpot idea that has no chance of working. Well, almost no chance. The Avengers, or what’s left of them, assemble on one final attempt to fix everything, and if they fail, they’ll do that together.

I’M TRYING TO AVOID AS MANY SPOILERS AS I CAN, BUT BE WARNED THAT  A REVIEW LIKE THIS WILL ALWAYS HAVE SOME SPOILERS. SEE THE FILM FIRST IF IT CONCERNS YOU.

THIS IS YOUR SPOILER WARNING.

Avengers: Infinity War set up an almost impossible task. Let’s give the villain his own movie and test out characters like they’ve never been tested before. I think that’s the importance of the Avengers franchise of the MCU. Much like any team-up movie, I think it’s important to have the team tested in a unique way, and they should almost always come out of the film with more people on the team or less, because that’s one of the only ways to change the story trajectory. Well, Infinity War had tested the Avengers, and they certainly came out of the film with less characters, but it was also an even bigger test for Anthony and Joe Russo (You, Me, and Dupree, Welcome to Collinwood) as well as the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Pain & Gain), who now had to bring in the fourth Avengers film on a solid landing and end the story. We knew that they had to do something to save some of the dusted Avengers. Hell, there was a Spider-Man trailer out weeks before the film’s release, and even though we joked about it possibly set before Endgame, everyone knew that Sony would not let Marvel kill their most popular character. Certainly, Black Panther’s story would not end after one solo film, but how was this all going to happen, and what’s the cost?

So let’s start with that impossible task. Knowing all the things that had to happen in the follow-up, it’s incredible how the Russos and the writing team actually pulled it off and made it captivating, exciting, and heartbreaking. From the shocking opening of the film to the final act, a dauntingly epic ending that takes up a large chunk of the film’s three-hour runtime, Avengers: Endgame just cruises on by. In a lot of ways, it’s the flipside of Infinity War’s coin, and it’s a good thing that they changed the titles from Infinity War Part 1 and 2 because as much as they rely on each other, Endgame is a completely different film, and that’s why it works so well. Infinity War was a film that gave each of its characters at least one moment to shine, and Endgame does that too, but Endgame even gives each film before it time to shine. There’s references to Iron Man 3 in this film and Thor: The Dark World, two films that don’t even end up in the upper 80% of most MCU fan rankings of the franchise (full disclosure, though, I love Iron Man 3). It’s a love letter to the 11 years of this franchise and the fans that stuck with it for so long.

The performances from the entire cast are solid, but I want to discuss the ones that I think deserve to be discussed, good or bad. Let’s start with Robert Downey Jr. His performance here is a series best (quite a feat for the actor that has not beaten Hugh Jackman for most appearances as a superhero in a franchise), even better than Tony Stark struggling with PTSD in Iron Man 3 (see, I love that one). There, he’s dealing with the knowledge he obtained in The Avengers that Earth is not alone in the universe, and now, he’s dealing with the failure in saving billions or trillions of lives. He becomes weak, and he cannot hold blame. He keeps going back to wanting to put a suit of armor around the world with Ultron. He’s beaten and broken and still hasn’t forgiven Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, Gifted, Before We Go) for abandoning him even though he is just as responsible. He’s also dealing with the loss of Peter Parker on Titan. Tony needs some hard truth at this point on his journey, and he gets it in Endgame.

Steve Rogers watched many of his friends die right in front of him. He’s a man who fell out of time into a confusing one and did the best he could, but he comes to realize that his failure to stop Thanos has hit him just as hard as Tony, but in a different way. He’s running a group that helps people to cope with the loss, and he’s going just as much for himself as anyone else. Chris Evans consistently does the impossible with Steve Rogers/Captain America; he makes this superhero a human. He makes the goody-goody Rogers an actual human being, with plenty of flaws and pain. This is the story that tests him and his need for hope, and there’s no one I’ve seen outside of Christopher Reeves playing Superman that embodies that struggle for hope so well.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, Her, Sing) has taken control of the remaining Avengers, and she’s stopped taking care of herself. She’s dealing with the loss by diving into work, hunting down a rogue Avenger who needs her help, but she’s sputtering on exhausted wheels. She’s just looking to make right on a career filled with wrongs. All the bad things she has done before finding her home with the Avengers have led her here, and she couldn’t do anything about it.

This is a film that gives Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right, Now You See Me 2) so much to do with the Hulk character, probably the most unique shift for the character in the MCU, and he does a spectacular job with it. It isn’t what I would have done, but I admire the character arc he takes.

One character that doesn’t get much to do is Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Huntsman, 12 Strong). This is a man who lost his father still very recently, his brother died in front of him, and half of his people are slaughtered after losing their home. He’s another hero dealing with failure. He should have aimed for the head. He came so close to saving everyone and then he didn’t. He should be dealing with the most pain of anyone in the story. Instead, he is used more so for comic relief than anything else. I get it, Chris Hemsworth is really funny, but I know he can play to drama as well. He just doesn’t get the emotional beats that I wanted him to have. It’s similar to what is done with him in Infinity War, where he just doesn’t get the time to develop his trauma. His alcoholism in Endgame could have some serious consequences and bearing on him, but it just doesn’t.

Lastly, I want to talk about Karen Gillan’s performance as Nebula. I’ve never been a big fan of the character, either the way she’s written or the performance. Nebula always reminded me of a fly that comes in the window in the middle of the night when you’re trying to sleep. You swat and swat and just can’t get rid of her. In Endgame, though, her character is expanded upon so much more because of how we see her and the presentation of how far she has come as a character since we saw her in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. People forget that vol. 2 takes place just a few months after the first one, so it’s been a long time since we’ve really seen Nebula in the MCU, and Gillan’s subtle broken performance is terrific.

From behind the lens, the Russos directed the hell out of this thing, and there’s a lot to be said about the strength of their storytelling as it has evolved over the years. Their cinematography is so clean, especially when it needs to be, in some of the heavier action set pieces. It’s safe to say that there’s a lot going on in this film; there has to be, but the way the Russos keep the focus on where it needs to be to progress the story is great, and the way they handle the set pieces are very focused and strongly laid out. There’s a heavy possibility, especially in the third act, to lose sight of what’s going on and where we’re at from a narrative perspective, but they never let the film lose sight of its goal, a tremendous feat.

With that visual storytelling comes the editing, which is very strong. The film never feels long. It’s the enjoyment factor, no doubt, but clocking in at just over three hours, the film almost should feel long, but it doesn’t. Not once. After seeing it twice, I can say with certainty that there’s only one scene I would cut earlier in the film to tighten it more, and it probably would only save 30 seconds or so.

No offense to Danny Elfman, but I’m really happy to hear Alan Silvestri’s score here after being absent from Age of Ultron. Silvestri’s score takes notes from The Avengers and especially from the ending of Infinity War, but it dives deeper into the depression, loss, and hope that permeates the film, and his score has a note of finality to it. If this is indeed the last time we’ll see some of our favorite heroes, Silvestri sends them out on a high note.

Avengers: Endgame accomplishes the most difficult task assigned to it. It has an ending. This is the end of a big part of this franchise without feeling the need to really set anything else up. For the most part, there isn’t an MCU film that hasn’t had the need to at least set up something in the end credits, but not Endgame, and that’s a strong and restrained decision because the film should speak for itself and everything that comes before it, and boy does it have a lot to speak on. This is an absolute cinematic achievement, and barring a few small hiccups, it comes off without a hitch. The ending raises some questions that we won’t really have answered until Spider-Man: Far From Home (the true last film in Phase 3), but beyond all that, I loved watching this movie and cannot wait to see it again, if only to catch some more of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. If you haven’t yet, then seriously, why not?

#ThanosDemandsYourSilence #Don’tSpoilTheEndgame

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, click here.

For my review of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, click here.

For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, click here.

For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2, click here.

For my review of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, click here.

For my review of Leythum’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer, click here.

For my review of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, click here.

For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, click here.

For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, click here.

For my review of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, click here.

For my review of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: Civil War, click here.

For my review of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, click here.

For my review of Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, click here.

For my review of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, click here.

For my review of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War, click here.

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