Archive for December, 2019
Year of Release: 2019 Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Staring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins.
As Steven Greydanus noted in his review of The Two Popes, Roger Ebert’s Memoirs of a Geisha principle applies to this movie: the more you know about the subject the harder it is to overlook the glaring inaccuracies. Deacon Greydanus has done the heavy lifting regarding some of the more outrageous claims the movie puts forward about Benedict, so I see no need to repeat the rebuttal here other than to add a few points of my own.
The notion that Benedict, “God’s Rottweiler,” was an uptight conservative holding onto the worst elements of Catholicism and Francis is a progressive reformer who will guide the Church into the 21st century is hardly original to this film. Still, it’s a preconception that gets on my nerves, partially because I think it’s very reasonable to argue that Francis is less progressive than Benedict XVI was, considering the countless times Benedict wrote about care for the environment, social justice, and was the pope who said democratic socialism is completely compatible with Catholicism.
However, since historical fiction has a valuable place and purpose—I really need to find time to write about why Amadeus is one of the greatest works of cinema, but that’s for another day—it’s worthwhile to accept the movie’s premise and review it on its own terms. I think it also fails as a work of historical fiction.
That failure is put into light partially by the most historically accurate parts: the flashbacks of a young Father Bergoglio (Juan Minujín) discerning his vocation, navigating the Argentine Dirty War as a bishop while trying to keep as many people alive as possible, and later passionately calling for economic justice. These scenes are some of the best of the movie and on their own make a compelling cinematic story of the first South American pope.
However, as promising as those scenes are, they are always followed by the fictitious meeting between Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) that forms the bulk of the narrative. While the notions of cross-examining and changing long-held beliefs are important and interesting, the portrayal always becomes overly simplistic with the mentality of Benedict = BAD and Francis = GOOD.
The hagiographical portrayal of Francis almost makes him seem above criticism. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles work hard to refute the more scandalous claims that have been leveled against Francis, but Benedict gets no such treatment. The scenes of him playing the piano are nice, and the filmmakers respect his love of reading and scholarship, but compared to the treatment Francis gets, it’s akin to Benedict’s insufficient reforms regarding the sex abuse scandal: too little, too late.
Dramatically, that’s a problem, because it undermines the climax where both pontiffs admit their shortcomings and confess to one another, but from what we’ve seen only one of them has any real need to confess. Bergoglio essentially has an Oskar Schindler moment that he could have done better, which is not a sin per se.
The confession scene also briefly portrays Benedict as more heterodox than Francis. Randomly granting absolution at the end of a conversation in which someone admits they feel remorse is not a confession, and I personally know very orthodox Catholics who would be aghast at a priest doing such a thing without the ritual of the sacrament. After an entire film in which Benedict is a strict rules follower to have him reverse course that abruptly is ludicrous.
More problematic is Benedict’s confession. I’m willing to overlook that he confesses he knew about Marcial Maciel’s crimes and did nothing (John Paul II knew and did nothing; Benedict removed him from ministry), because there were plenty of other times Benedict handled the sex abuse in the Church badly and conflating Benedict with John Paul II in this scene works with the premise. However, the cut to Bergoglio’s reaction implies that he is going to be the perfect reformer who cleans house and fixes the sex abuse problem in the Church.
To quickly summarize the failures of the past three popes in that regard: John Paul II was in denial the sexual abuse was happening, Benedict put weak, insufficient reforms in place, and Francis seems to be under the misapprehension that it’s been taken care of and he can focus his energy on climate change and economic justice. Making Francis seem like he will correct Benedict’s failures in this regard seriously downplays the extent of the sexual abuse that has plagued the Church and still does.
As a thought experiment, if the film replaced Benedict XVI with John Paul II and Cardinal Bergoglio with Cardinal Ratzinger, I think it might be less inaccurate, at least regarding the retirement subplot and Ratzinger’s reluctance to be pope. I know inaccuracies in historical fiction are beside the point, but I think that highlights how committed the filmmakers are to the notion of Francis as reformer, even at the cost of consistent characterization or real reforms.
Personal recommendation: D
Year of Release: 2019 Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Evan Rachel Wood.
The relationship with a sister is something to be cherished. That was the driving force behind Frozen, and it continues to be so for this originally unplanned sequel. The relationship between Anna and Elsa (Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel reprising their roles) receives more attention here, as the bond between them is once again tested in a journey into an enchanted forest, as fears of change, isolation, and issues of trust threaten to ruin their relationship once again.
If you’re saying, “didn’t they resolve those issues at the end of the first film,” yes, they did. However, since when has anyone just stopped a destructive habit after doing it for a lifetime? The unconditional love between the two sisters remains, and how they navigate threats with that as their foundation is where the sequel places its focus.
I loved Frozen when it came out. I saw it back to back days in the theater. At the time, I admitted that the secret villain twist was obviously an afterthought that didn’t work at all, but I thought everything else was fantastic, except for a couple clunker songs such as “Fixer Upper” and “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.” It was frustrating when Disney put all their promotions toward “Let It Go” as the best song, when it clearly was (and is) “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”—a song about one sister begging the other for a relationship, which is the heart of the film. I can’t even hear the first notes of it without tearing up.
Some of the weaknesses have become more noticeable over time. I still enjoy Frozen immensely, although not quite as much as I originally did.
I love and appreciate this sequel more than I ever cared for the first one. The score is more uniformly excellent with fewer standout numbers, but a higher caliber of songs overall. None of them are as good as “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” But almost all are on par with “For the First Time in Forever” and “Let It Go.” I really appreciated the way the songs set up one another and connect to the main themes of isolation and trust in the midst of life’s changes.
“All is Found” is a lullaby that sets the mood for the film that follows, promising a story of mystery and fantasy that also has a sense of tenderness in the midst of fear. “Some Things Never Change” functions similarly to “For the First Time in Forever,” but it introduces several subplots and grounds the characters in what’s most important to get them through the subsequent journey in which things will obviously change.
Elsa’s big “I want” song this time is “Into the Unknown,” which seems to be where Disney is (correctly) placing its Oscar hopes. For my money, it’s a stronger song than “Let It Go,” not only musically, but also for being the instigation of the plot and for having a satisfying dramatic answer in “Show Yourself,” which occurs in the second act of the film. Idina Menzel once again belts the demanding range with authority, transitioning from the insecurity of the verse to the confidence of the chorus.
“When I Am Older” continues the carefree shuffle from “In Summer” into another Olaf solo about learning to make sense of the world, while searching for Samantha, even if you don’t know anyone named Samantha. Josh Gad is every bit as funny as he was in the first film, and his new song here is at least as good. Olaf’s philosophical crisis is not only great comic relief, but ties into the plot nicely as well.
Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, returning) gets a longer solo than “Reindeers Are Better Than People” with “Lost in the Woods,” which is the power ballad ending the first act of the film instead of “Let It Go.” This is a brilliant idea on several levels. For most of the film the characters are literally lost in the woods and struggling to prevent themselves from becoming lost emotionally from one another. Taking the focus briefly away from the sisters appropriately heightens the conflict at the narrative center of the movie.
Anna has her own solo this time as well. Strongly emphasizing the heart of both this film and its predecessor is the relationship of the two sisters, it follows both of Elsa’s solos, indicating she cannot complete her journey without the aid of her sister. “The Next Right Thing” is also a powerful testament to finding your way out of depression and helplessness even when it doesn’t seem possible. Kristen Bell certainly does not have the voice Menzel does, but the intimacy and tenderness of her performance is a haunting complement to the virtuosity of Elsa’s songs.
As I said, “Into the Unknown” is the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. After Elsa hears a voice reminding her of her mother, she accidentally wakes up the four spirits of enchanted forest (earth, wind, fire, and water), endangering the lives of the people of Arendelle. She, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf set off to the forest to find out what has upset the spirits and appease them before it’s too late. The main plot points are fairly obvious well in advance, but that plot is primarily a backdrop for the relationship between Anna and Elsa, which takes forefront here more powerfully than the first film.
Similar to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the sins of the proper, civilized court are exposed and atoned for in the wild fantasy of the woods. Anyone who has seen any recent family films will probably be able to guess who committed the unatoned for sin, but once again, that’s not the main focus of this movie. The bond between sisters and friends forms the film’s center, and when people we trust betray us, monsters chase us, or any unknown confronts us, it’s those bonds that hopefully remain constant, and they form the roots from which we grow.
In the midst of his philosophical musings, Olaf asks if the enchanted forest will transform them. He then wonders what a transformation is. There’s a small one just after that when Elsa confronts the fire spirit with calmness and acceptance, making what was first seen as a monster into a cute harmless lizard. It’s a small act of kindness, which in turn foreshadows greater acts of compassion and love that allow the fears of the unknown to be a source of transformation and not destruction.
Personal recommendation: A-
Year of Release: 2019 Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, Jason Derulo, James Corden, and Rebel Wilson.
To answer the most important question regarding Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats: does Jennifer Hudson have the vocal chops to pull off “Memory,” yes, she most emphatically does. Is it enough to save a train wreck of a movie that, with few exceptions, is a series of mind-bogglingly bad decisions? For that matter is “Memory” enough to save the show itself which is likewise a series of (less) bad decisions?
Before I brand myself as a hater of Cats the stage show, which is a more or less enjoyable two-plus-hour dance recital if you can accept it for that, let me sincerely say that it has several decent songs and the choreography is fun to watch. The songs I particularly enjoy from the show are “Memory,” “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat,” and “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” The song (yes, singular) that I enjoyed in this presentation was “Memory,” in spite of Hooper’s attempts to sabotage it.
Hudson lands the one big showstopper that’s far more difficult to sing well than most people give it credit for. Hooper then follows it with a reaction shot of two humans imitating cats that elicited deserved howls of laughter in my theater. If following the one earned moment of pathos in the movie with that wasn’t bad enough, Victoria (Francesca Hayward) then sings the desperate Oscar attempt for best original song, cowritten by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift: “Beautiful Ghosts.” It’s the equivalent of a figure skater nailing the triple axel and then twice falling flat on her face while trying to turn around at the end of the rink.
I understand that the truncated act I version of “Memory” is followed with the full version of “Beautiful Ghosts,” so following the full version of “Memory” with a shorter reprise of “Beautiful Ghosts” could make structural sense. This ignores several important points. First, “Beautiful Ghosts” is lyrically a watered-down version of “Memory.” No musical needs to a new song to repeat the emotions of the song immediately preceding it. Second, “Beautiful Ghosts” stands out structurally and musically like a sore thumb from the rest of the score. Finally, it’s an okay song at best, so placing it next to the most famous song in the show is a particularly bad idea.
Speaking of bad ideas, possibly the worst one plaguing this movie is the decision that the paper-thin plot tacked onto the original needed more explanation. As a result, ridiculous and redundant expository dialogue has been introduced to the originally completely sung musical, explaining at the end of the Jellicle Ball, one cat, chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), gets to go to the Heavyside Layer to be reborn. A seven-year old could have told you that from watching the stage show without it being explained to them, but apparently Hooper and screenwriter Lee Hall think the average movie goer in 2019 is less intelligent than the average seven-year-old. It doesn’t make the plot more sensical—that’s not possible—it just makes the stupidity of it more apparent.
Even more mind-numbingly, all of this is being explained to Victoria, the youngest and newest cat attending her first Jellicle ball. In the stage show, the performing cats break the fourth wall, addressing the non-feline audience to explain the “Naming of Cats” and who the various cats are. It makes no sense at all that this needs to be explained to a cat, an animal with one of the best instincts. Inconsistently, the movie also doesn’t entirely abandon the fourth-wall breaking. For the final number, “The Addressing of Cats,” Old Deuteronomy looks right at the camera, presumably forgetting about the audience-surrogate Victoria standing right next to her. Or maybe it’s because Victoria has now become a Jellice cat, which is the one unexplained aspect of the stage show that the movie insists on keeping a mystery.
I’ve been negative long enough. Francesca Hayward is a very good dancer and singer, and from the little bit she has to act, presumably a good actress too, knowing how to emote with her body and eyes. Ian McKellen’s 110% commitment to mimicking a cat is more enjoyable than almost anything else in the movie, and of course there’s Hudson. Taylor Swift is also in the movie, and she performs “Macavity the Mystery Cat” with surprising skill, even if her breathy singing style doesn’t quite have the aggressive edge the song needs.
As a groupie of Macavity (Idris Elba, playing a smaller version of Shere Khan), it’s weird that Swift’s Bombalurina is the only female feline to have a noticeably not-flat chest, which the camera creepily draws attention to. If I wanted to think about this movie more than I do, I might say it’s an example of slut-shaming by making the most sinister female cat the only sexual one, as contrasted with Jason Derulo’s flirtatious Rum Tum Tugger. But I really don’t want to think about it that much. I especially don’t want to think about Rebel Wilson in a CGI fat cat suit spreading her legs and scratching the inside of her upper thighs, but bad ideas plague this movie in truly incredible ways. However, writing those sentences back to back just made me realize that when this movie focuses on cat bodies, or human ones thanks to CGI cat fur, the focus is almost always female and always unflattering.
I haven’t even talked about Hooper’s bad camera choices here. He apparently learned the lesson from his dumb single-take song idea for Les Misérables, but he’s overcorrected, cutting so frequently that, for the most part, we barely get to see the dances. Steven McRae’s tap dancing as Skimbleshanks is one of the few nice exceptions, even though Andrew Lloyd Webber decided the song need to be updated, cutting the bridge and re-orchestrating it, as he does to the detriment of several songs, such as “The Old Gumby Cat” and “The Addressing of Cats,” although the latter may have been because Judi Dench doesn’t have the voice to sing its enormous range.
I also need to mention the human faces on the mice and cockroaches that Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) keeps in line and occasionally swallows whole. Since the entire set was designed for human-sized cats, shouldn’t mice and cockroaches be proportionately larger than they are in real life, and not the same size? It’s a strange disconnect, much like the shots of human cats crawling on all fours and then randomly deciding to walk on two legs that plague most of “Jellicle Songs for Jellice Cats,” but clearly not something that mattered to anyone making Cats or anyone who will enjoy it, which can probably be said about most of this movie.
Personal recommendation: D+
Year of Release: 2019 Directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Azhy Robertson.
When Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, and Hal Prince were working on Company in the late sixties, they wanted to craft a musical about relationships, commitment, and the fear of commitment while simultaneously taking the marital problems theatregoers came to a musical to escape and throwing those problems back in their faces. The initial staged finale rejected marriage entirely, and Prince said it was too depressing and shocking for an audience in 1970. Sondheim and Furth then wrote a new ending which gave us one of Sondheim’s most famous and beautiful songs: “Being Alive.” In Sondheim’s words, it’s a progression “from complaint to prayer,”¹ and in the context of the show it acknowledges the fears and difficulties of relationships while simultaneously showing the importance of human connections.
Why am I talking about Company? In regards to Marriage Story to reveal the reason would spoil one of the best cinematic surprises of this year, so I will only say that it features into the film in two crucial scenes. Those scenes both beautifully underscore the driving premise of the film: that you cannot use another person as a source of your happiness, but after you’ve shared any meaningful part of your life with someone, even if parts of it were toxic and divorcing them was a necessity, there will always be some love for them and the ways they drove your crazy and put you through hell that makes the divorce and separation all the more painful.
Painful is the optimal descriptor for Marriage Story, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s newest film about self-centered yet sympathetic characters whose desires for themselves lead them to clash with one another. That clash begins when protagonists Charlie (Adam Driver)—a New York based stage director—and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson)—an actress from LA—decide to separate. The two of them have lived and worked in New York for approximately ten years where they’ve also raised their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). However, an amiable separation escalates after Nicole visits Nora, a divorce attorney played by Laura Dern, prompting Charlie to seek his own legal counsel in the form of Jay (Ray Liotta).
If there are any villains in the film, they are the lawyers, and both Dern and Liotta dig into their roles with zeal that makes their characters easy to hate. At the same time, to say that the lawyers are the villains who prey upon the pain of this couple, and thus exacerbate it, for their financial benefit, grossly misses the harm that Charlie and Nicole wreck not only upon each other, but upon their son, and upon themselves as well.
That is the pain that makes Marriage Story a somber viewing experience, and in my opinion, an indescribably powerful one as well. It’s an overused truism that pain can be cathartic, but this journey into hell, which leaves its protagonists with gaping wounds and scars reveals that in order for both Charlie and Nicole to heal the unhealthiness of their relationship, the proverbial bandage needs to be ripped off, exposing the ugliness that has been gradually festering for years.
It may not sound like an enjoyable experience to watch, and if someone has a personal aversion to vicious family dramas, Marriage Story would be near excruciatingly unbearable to sit through. A film that is about the destruction of a relationship probably sounds like it could never be inspiring. However, the performances, dialogue, directing, editing, and scoring are all out of this world, and it is a joy to see this level of perfect craftsmanship. Furthermore, they are not being used in a story in which divorce is something to be rooted for, but as an exposition of an unhealthy relationship from which a divorce is inevitable. Marriage Story is a depiction of how anyone can learn from the mistakes that led to such a toxic relationship and grow from them after it inevitably ends.
Growth is ultimately at the heart of Marriage Story. That growth can be seen in the transformation of the opening voiceovers, and also in the aforementioned tribute to Company. The film opens with two voiceovers: one from Charlie, the other from Nicole. They recall the reasons they fell in love with one another and the ways that love grew during their marriage. Both voiceovers are accompanied by montages of the spouse being described, edited in a sort of honeymoon bliss home movie that only looks at the roses of a relationship.
At the same time as roses, thorns grow as well, and pruning that mess is where true growth for all the characters happens. The scene where Charlie and Nicole confront the largest and ugliest thorn coming between them is as explosive as the climax of such a story should be.
The conclusion shows a transformation, giving an earlier scene an entirely new meaning, and also showing how a seemingly simple act of consideration for someone else is the basis for any type of love growing between two people, even if it’s a love that should not be manifested in a marriage.
Finally, there’s one other transformation that only some people will pick up on, but it takes something that initially appeared one way, and adds layers of richness by presenting it in a completely different context. I can’t spoil what that is, but the way it microcosmically depicts the journey from pain to acceptance is hands down my favorite scene of any movie this year.
Personal recommendation: A
1 Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 196.