Sunday, January 6, 2019

December 2018




AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018)
    Few artists have attracted the attention of filmmakers and actors through the years as often as Vincent van Gogh.
      Kirk Douglas gave one of his strongest performances as the Dutch painter in Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” (1956) as did Tim Roth in Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” (1990). Now, painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel has added another fascinating look at this short, sad, well-documented life.
    Willem Dafoe, one of the most underrated actors working in Hollywood, is nothing short of riveting as Van Gogh, offering a portrayal that brings this fragile man to life. The actor illuminates how, living day to day in a struggle with mental illness and poverty, this artist still could create some of the most inspired paintings of the 19th Century.
     As a painter himself, Schnabel is the perfect director to explore this complex genius, clearly understanding the sacrifices necessary for great art. I don’t know Schnabel’s art, but as a film artist he has shown himself to be an inventive filmmaker and superb director of actors. His 2007 film, “The Diving Bell and Butterfly” is one of the best movies of this century.
    Like previous van Gogh films, the charismatic Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) steals his scenes—Anthony Quinn won an Oscar as him in the 1956 film—as he befriends Vincent after Theo van Gogh (Rupert Friend) helps him sell some of his paintings. Vincent and Gauguin go to Arles in the south of France to paint, until van Gogh’s paranoia breaks the friendship. 
     “At Eternity’s Gate” is less concerned about biographical details than capturing Vincent’s mental state that resulted in both amazing art and a lonely, depressing life that ended at age 37. Looking into Dafoe’s clear, hypnotic eyes is like travelling back to the 1870s and searching for answers about this simple man whose paintings now sell for tens of millions of dollars. Unquestionably, Dafoe deserves an Oscar for his rigorous, intense portrayal.
     Near the end of the film, a priest (played by Mads Mikkelsen, the distinctive Dutch actor), who runs the institution where van Gogh lives, tells his patient how “ugly” one of his painting is, thinking he is just wasting his life. But he’s clearly astonished by van Gogh’s explanation of art and the place it holds in his life. This madman sees what others cannot.


VICE (2018)
   Writer-director Adam McKay, as he did with “The Big Short,” never lets you forget you are watching a cinematic creation. I’m naturally resistance to this collage-style of filmmaking, with its mixture of news reports, partisan documentary, over-the-top satire (fake closing credits roll 40 minutes into the film) and traditional narrative storytelling.  Thoroughly entertaining and eviscerating, “Vice” may be the most original bio-pic I’ve ever seen.
     Dick Cheney, protege of longtime Republican insider Donald Rumsfeld, went on to one of the most successful political “supporting” players in U.S. history. He became President Ford’s chief of staff, spent 10 years as a Wyoming congressman, served as President George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary, spent the Clinton years as Halliburton CEO and then was an unusually powerful vice president for George W. Bush. What the film posits is that Cheney, first under Rumsfeld’s guidance and then later with his own team, gamed the system to shift decision-making power to the executive branch, taking advantage of an easily influenced George W. to fashion a very different America in the wake of Sept. 11.
     Christian Bale delivers yet another chameleon performance, completely altering his body and voice to become a very convincing Cheney (though he’s a bit old to play the younger version). But more than the physical likeness, Bale, through McKay’s fine script, nails the conniving, ruthless, razor-focused thought process that made Cheney so effective.
     Sam Rockwell gives yet another spot-on supporting performance as good-old boy George, while Steve Carrell is outstanding as the ultimate power-grubbing, cynical Rumsfeld and Amy Adams gives a Lady Macbeth-like turn as Lynne Cheney. In one of the film’s most unusual turns, the narrator (Jesse Plemons) eventually becomes an on-screen character in the movie.
     But this is really McKay’s show as he channels the agitprop filmmaking of Michael Moore and Oliver Stone and the loopy surrealism of Wes Anderson to fashion a portrait of Cheney that the man himself might enjoy.
     The director does overplay his hand, especially near the end when Cheney undergoes heart transplant surgery, or earlier when he has Dick and Lynne recite Shakespeare verse, yet this whirlwind of a film is at its best when it exposes the ease that the ship of state can be steered into dark waters. As we witnessed daily in 2018, all it takes is one very determined man who refuses to play by the rules.  

  
ROMA (2018)
     Alfonzo Cuarón’s new film represents a sharp left turn from his best-known films, “Children of Men” and Oscar-winner “Gravity,” as he takes an unsentimental journey into his experiences growing up in a Mexico City neighborhood.
     As seen through the eyes of nanny Cleo (a stoic, but unforgettable Yalitza Aparicio), the family is thoroughly ordinary, at least until the husband leaves them for a younger woman. Even that doesn’t offer much excitement, as the mother (Marina de Tavira) keeps the children in the dark about the real reason their father isn’t around.
     Cleo, after a brief affair with a self-indulgent martial arts enthusiast, finds herself pregnant, which introduces poignancy into this otherwise emotionally remote film.
     There is something about a skillful director (Cuarón also serves as his DP on the black-and-white film) putting his youth on film—even when it’s rather unremarkable—that spurs critics to become enraptured. Part of the appeal is the leisurely pace and the downplaying of dramatic (Hollywood) acting he utilizes. Obviously influenced by the style of French New Wave director Agnès Varda, Cuarón fills the picture with slow panning shots across both interior and exterior sets. Varda made this her trademark, capturing street life in early features like “La Pointe Courte” (1955) and “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962). Nothing wrong with copping from legendary filmmakers, but style alone doesn’t make for good cinema.
      To me, of the seven Cuarón feature films I’ve seen, this is the least impressive and, most certainly, the least entertaining.    
     I laughed once during the film: When the family goes to the cinema to see “Marooned,” the 1969 American film about a rescue attempt to save astronauts stuck in space. Clearly, Cuarón never forgot that film, using it as inspiration for “Gravity.” A few more off-beat moments like that could have elevated what now plays like a lovely photographed, but self-indulgent, art film.


GREEN BOOK (2018)
   This is the feel-good movie of the year—and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
    Based on a true story (though not very truthful according to relatives of Don Shirley), the film shows the persistent racism that remained in the 1960s, especially throughout the South, as seen through the experiences of Shirley, a black pianist, and his driver for the tour, Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer.
     Shirley, played with imperious arrogance by Mahershala Ali, is a classically trained musician who rakes in the cash by playing sophisticated pop—a hideous but popular genre (think Liberace) that thankfully disappeared by the early ‘70s—for white, country-club crowds. Shirley wants it both ways: He plays Uncle Tom while performing, yet expects to be treated with dignity off-stage (he insists on being called “Dr. Shirley”) instead of like the hired help.
    Viggo Mortensen is a bit more believable, playing the bigoted driver who, temporarily losing his job as a doorman at the Copacabana nightclub, takes the driving gig out of desperation. It’s never clear if Tony starts out as a racist or just acts like one because of everyone’s attitude around him.
    The plot, and virtually every scene, as directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber”), plays out predictable and the characters evolve exactly as you know they will from the opening scenes. The film is filled with stereotypes and tropes used for obvious laughs or shocks for those unfamiliar with America in the 1960s.
    The audience is meant to be aghast when Shirley admits that he doesn’t know (and love) contemporary black music like Tony does. The film takes the stereotype one step further when the pair visit a bar frequented by African-Americans featuring an R&B band. When Shirley is coaxed on stage and begins performing, he comes alive, finally enjoying being on stage. It is as if a black man can only be satisfied by playing “his people’s” popular music.
       While “Green Book” doesn’t quite stoop to “Driving Miss Daisy” levels, it certainly doesn’t deserve the accolades it has received or the coming Oscar nominations. This is a Lifetime movie of the week for those who still need to be reminded what American racism looks like.


THE FAVOURITE (2018)
    Of the two British monarchy films released at the end of the year, “The Favourite” has won the critics’ eye, while “Mary Queen of Scots” (see below) has mostly been dismissed as over-hyped history. But, to me, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ concoction about a pair of cousins seeking favor with Queen Anne, who ruled for just 12 years in the early 1700s, plays like a stitched-together collection of odd scenes with little or no substance or consequence.
       In an outstanding performance, veteran British actress Olivia Colman portrays Anne as a repulsive, pitiful, mentally unstrung woman who deserves the crown about as much as her pet rabbits.  She’s shown as an uninterested pawn of Lady Sarah (a rather overwrought Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s military husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), who convinced her to ignore her advisers and continue the war against France. Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up in search of a handout from distance relatives and quickly sees a way to supplant Sarah as the queen’s confidante.
    I didn’t find much of the one-upmanship or the way Queen Anne is made to look a fool very funny. At times, it felt as if the lead actress and her director were working toward different goals. Lanthimos, first and foremost a stylist, brings a distinctive look to the film, which feels contemporary despite its 19th Century setting.
    What worked for me in “The Lobster,” didn’t in this film. While there’s enough well-staged scenes and off-beat acting to keep one’s attention, the film never sticks with a tone or convinces me that this is a tale worth telling.


MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018)
    Few historical dramas not written by Shakespeare (the Bard was born during the events of this story) have endured like the rivalry between royal cousins Elizabeth and Mary in the late 16th Century.
    When Mary returns to Scotland after spending most of her life in France, where she served as queen consort before her husband’s death, she immediately divides the country and raises concerns in London. Under her half-brother (James McArdle), an uneasy alliance was maintained between Catholics and Protestants, but with Mary back, no one is happy as she managed to insult leaders of both religions. In fact, she seems to be more interested in establishing a road to the British throne for her future heirs than ruling Scotland.
      It becomes a race to marry Mary to the “right” man and produce a future king. Back in England, Elizabeth, despite constant nagging by her closest adviser William Cecil (the always reliable Guy Pearce), remains unmarried and, as we know, will die without an heir. 
    While it seems obvious now, previous versions of this story never explored the resentment the men serving these queens must have felt. Director Josie Rourke, a veteran of London theater, and screenwriter Beau Willimon, the creator of “House of Cards,” relying on historian John Guy’s recent book on Mary, place the blame for the inability of these two to form an alliance on men with a very different agenda, working against them. It’s a very believable theory, but, of course, the idea of these two powerful women hating one another is a more appealing, dramatically fueling performances through the years by such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett. 
     Saoirse Ronan, the 24-year-old, three-time Oscar nominee, can be added to this list as she redefines Mary as a determined, educated young monarch, who, despite her smarts, grows way too trusting and ends up being betrayed by those closest to her. Margot Robbie, so impressive as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya” (2017), is a very formidable Elizabeth, who also finds herself undercut by those around her, but withstood all the slings and arrows to run for 44 years. There is something desperate about this Elizabeth, as she hides behind the white makeup and ghastly red wig. And, as we all know, the queens never met, but Hollywood insists on that tête-á-tête in every film.
    Standing out among the beards and impressive costumes, is Scottish stage and TV veteran David Tennant playing the firebrand Protestant and misogynist John Knox, who leads rebellions against Mary.
    While the political/religious gamesmanship often becomes too convoluted to follow, the acting and the impressive production—cinematographer John Mathieson captures the rugged beauty of the Scottish Highlands along with the dank, cave-like atmosphere of Edinburgh Caste—make “Mary Queen of Scots” serious entertainment, a thoughtful update that makes the 400-year-old story as relevant as the latest headlines.  


THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018)
    For anyone who wonders why those of us who write about movies put so much emphasis on directors, this 1970s throwback provides the answer.
     What could be better than an old-fashioned heist movie with 82-year-old Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker, a career bank robber, and 68-year-old Sissy Spacek as the spunky widow Jewel, who he romances, off and on, for years.
    But director David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”) manages to muck it up over and over. Most damaging is the convoluted structure that shifts time frame without any warning and stretching the believability of Redford; even Hollywood make-up masters can’t take 20 years off an 82-year-old.
    Another problem that can be laid at the director’s feet are the low-key performances and static direction that depletes whatever energy the story brings to the screen. Sure, those of us who grew up on 1960s-70s films long for more introspective, realistically paced storytelling, but this film moves at the pace of a man using a walker. And it’s about robbing banks.
     The biggest miscue to me was the lack of interaction between Redford’s Tucker and his robbery accomplices, played by a pair of charismatic seniors, Tom Waits and Danny Glover. These two wonderful character actors are barely given time to speak. Maybe the interplay ended up on the cutting room floor (or should I say in the desktop recycle bin?), but I’m sure it would have enlivened the picture.
     Even though the film is about robberies, there is none of the preparations and anticipation that makes these kind of films interesting; Tucker just walks into small, local banks and says, “give me your money.”  
    There are some memorable exchanges between the two stars as Tucker tries to keep his true profession under wraps and Jewel does her best to scope out the truth about this entertaining old dude. But it’s not enough to sustain a feature film or save what should have been my favorite film of the year.


FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2017)
    Among all the 50 plus actresses struggling to secure the few good roles written for their age group. 60-year-old Annette Bening seems to win most of them, especially if it involves sexuality.
    In "Being Julia" (2004), "Running With Scissors" (2006), "The Kids Are Alright" (2010), "20th Century Women" (2016), she's played unsettled middle-aged women who never figured out (or wanted to) how to live a traditional life.
    Her latest, released at the end of 2017 in hopes of securing an Oscar nomination, falls into the same category. She plays the fascinating character actor Gloria Grahame, best known for "The Big Heat" and winning the 1952 Oscar for "The Bad and the Beautiful."
    The film chronicles her final weeks living in the Liverpool home of a much younger actor she became involved with a few years earlier.
    Peter Turner, played by Jamie Bell (star of "Billy Elliot"), was in his late 20s when the 55-year-old Grahame rented a room at the London boarding house where he lived in the 1970s.
   The film, with too many confusing flashbacks to different stages of their relationship, never rises above the cliché of a dying diva involved with a younger man. The script just keeps trying to explain their relationship in scene after scene. That should have been the starting point, not the only point.
     Also sinking this rather thin drama is Bell, who never convinced me that he had a real bond with this difficult woman. Though the script is based on Turner's memoir of his time with Grahame, he doesn't offer much insight into his character.
     But I think they picked the wrong story about Grahame. What would make a hell of a film is her relationship with second husband Nicholas Ray, director of "Rebel Without a Cause" and "In a Lonely Place." Rumor has it that he ended the marriage when he caught her with his teenage son. Then, eight years later, the son became her fourth husband. Now that's the classic Hollywood I want to see on film.
    The best scene in the film is when Turner meets Grahame's mother (played by the always luminous Vanessa Redgrave) and her sister, who breaks the news to Turner about Gloria's previous May-Sept relationship.
     But let's face it, most contemporary filmgoers wouldn't know Gloria Grahame from Ida Lupino. The character comes off as just another Hollywood, self-centered ditz without enough substance for even Bening to do much with it.






Sunday, November 25, 2018

October-November 2018


 

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)
    I have been reading about and anticipating seeing this film since I first become entranced by movies and cinematic history. That was when I was in my early 20s. I am now 62 and director Orson Welles has been dead for 33 years.
    I can now say that I’ve seen the master’s final film; or, more accurately, I’ve seen a collection of half-baked improvised scenes that Welles shot between 1970 and 1974, assembled, with the best intentions, by Welles' acolyte Peter Bogdanovich and others.
    What is clear, more than anything on the screen, is that the reason Welles never finished editing the footage is that he realized, at some point, that he didn’t have a film among the thousands of hours of celluloid. He had an idea about a legendary director who, trying to recapture his relevancy, makes a film in the style of the hip 1960s and '70s films yet fails to attract financial backing. As much as he denied it, Welles was making a film about himself and he kept shooting scene after scene in hopes of creating something worthy of his reputation. He failed, and he knew it.
     What remains is an incoherent collage of indulgence, with little discernible story or characterization, nothing close to the bravado filmmaking style we associate with Welles or the intellectual rigor he brought to all his films. It almost feels like a practical joke Welles was playing on everyone involved, never imagining that someone (ironically his off-and-on friend/rival Bogdanovich) would pull it together and call it an "Orson Welles film."
     This film, if you can call it that, should be avoided by all but Welles’ completists.
       Most of the movie is set at an industry party in which this much-anticipated new film by Jake Hannaford (a seemingly uninterested John Huston) will be screened. A collection of crew members, sycophants, assorted directors and film critics mingle as Hannaford rambles from one room to another, insulting anyone who crosses him. Whatever impact these encounters might have had in the script (if there ever was one—another Welles scam) disappears on screen, largely because the director’s chaotic filming schedule.
     Conversations between Huston and party-goers were often shot years apart—as the frenetic cutting and different film stocks reveal—and never were all these performers in the same room, as detailed in journalist Josh Karp’s book “Orson Welles’s Last Movie.” The disconnect between characters is painfully obvious; there’s not a  snippet of dialogue in the film that feel real nor a moment of sincerity.
     If I hadn’t read the book on this film, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what was going on. What I was left with was spotting familiar faces in the crowd.
    Those with substantial roles include Bogdanovich (replacing comedian Rich Little, who quit the film with no explanation months into filming) as a confidant and punching bag of Hannaford, along with veteran character actors Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien and Norman Foster. Seen briefly are Susan Strasberg as a Pauline Kael-like critic, Lilli Palmer as the party hostess, directors Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper and Henry Jaglom as themselves, while among the extras, reportedly, are now disgraced ex-CBS president Les Moonves and future writer-director Cameron Crowe, then a teenager.
      Another prominent role is played by 23-year-old Wisconsin film critic Joe McBride, who connected with Welles by going to Larry Edmund’s Bookstore on  Hollywood Boulevard, where he was given Bogdanovich’s phone number and, within a day, receiving an invite to Welles home. Life, even Hollywood, was simpler in 1970. (McBride has gone on to a successful career as an author, critic and film teacher.)
     But actually anyone of a certain age should consider adding this film to their CV—no one will ever know if it’s true.
    The film within the film, which is titled “The Other Side of the Wind,” is Welles’ attempt to parody the emotional disconnect of 1960s art films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Welles' longtime mistress, Croatian actress Oja Kodar plays a mysterious seductress who has sex with a young man in a car and then, completely naked, chases him across various landscapes. It may be the longest continuous nude performance outside a porn film in movie history.
     According to the book, Welles kept spending more and more money—while paying his crew and actors only occasionally—with, in my judgment, no plans to finish the movie. While Welles was unquestionably one of the greatest talents ever to sit in a director’s chair, he was ill-equipped to deal with the compromises required to survive in Hollywood. And to get his way, he was more than willing to exaggerate and lie. He spent years deceiving investors, critics and movie fans about the progress of the film and then would renege on promises after he received the money he needed.
       Even after his death in 1985, the picture remained in limbo mostly due to the bickering of his daughter Beatrice and Kodar and the reluctance of anyone—offers were made to Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Clint Eastwood—to “finish” the film.
    Sad to say, but it might have been much better if this film had never been seen, remaining a legendary lost film, like Alexander Korda's "I, Claudius" or Josef von Sternberg's original version of "Greed." Instead, the genie is out of the bottle and it’s not the last great film it was sold as for decades.
     It adds nothing to Welles legacy as a filmmaker, which remains pretty safe with no less than five great films, including his debut, “Citizen Kane,” which remains the best movie ever made by an American.
    "The Other Side of the Wind" is the perfect title for this collection of scraps from the table of a boisterous, charismatic one-time boy wonder who had run out of ideas. There is nothing on the other side.


A STAR IS BORN (2018)
   You could write a fascinating book about the four versions (five if you include “What Price Hollywood?” the 1932 source of the story) of this quintessential show business cautionary tale.
      It’s unusual that any story not based on a classic piece of literature has been remade so many times, but these characters and their fate connects to filmgoers in 2018 just as strongly as they did in the Great Depression, the 1950s and 1970s.
     At the center of all versions is alcoholism and the difficulty men have to taking a secondary position in a relationship, whether in the movie industry as seen in William Wellman's 1937 drama and the 1954 George Cukor musical or the two recent versions focused on singer-songwriters.
     You know you are in for more than your standard Hollywood recycling job when, in the opening sequence of the new version, country-rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), on his way back from a concert, orders his limo driver to find a bar after emptying a whisky bottle.
      Maine spots a lighted door down an alleyway and directs the drive to pull over. Inside, the jam-packed bar features female impersonators except for one Ally (Lady Gaga), a singer as dramatic as the impersonators, who delivers an unforgettable version of Edith Piaf’s “En la via Rose,” that totally captivates the visiting celebrity.
    Ushered into the dressing room, Maine autographs a “girl’s” fake boobs and flirts with Ally, convincing her to get coffee with him. They spend most of the late night-early morning together, talking about her singing and songwriting. 
    This leisurely meet-cute sequence feels like it plays out in real time--it easily lasts for 20 minutes--and the dialogue between Maine and Ally sounds unscripted. At least in the early scenes of the film, Lady Gaga’s lack of acting skills are a plus; her reaction to the attention from a national celebrity seems authentic as is her reluctance to take center stage.
    More so than previous versions, the drinking of Maine is shown to be a problem from the start and, maybe this is a sign of the times, Ally’s fame isn’t presented as the source of his addiction.
     The film loses some of its energy during its second act as Ally’s career blossoms and she acquiesces to being remade into a pop diva. Cooper, who directs and also co-adapted the screenplay from all the previous pictures, straddles the fence on making judgments on what Ally is willing to do for stardom, how she wants to use her musical talent. (Ironically, a question that could be addressed to Lady Gaga herself.)
    Lady Gaga, whose natural charisma makes up for her amateur acting, and Cooper, who performs his own songs and never shies away from the dark aspects of the character give the very definition of movie star performances.
    In addition, there's Sam Elliott, bringing his usual cool presence and unaffected acting, as Maine’s older brother and manager. Here’s hoping the awards campaign for the film will also deliver an Oscar nominations for Elliott.
    This year’s “A Star Is Born” isn’t the great film that the 1937 and 1954 versions are, but it’s a well-written, memorably acted entertainment, benefiting from the powerful voice of Lady Gaga, that seems destined to add to the franchise's collection of Oscar nominations.


THE ODD COUPLE (1968) and LOST IN YONKERS (1993)
     Few writers, Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle come to mind, have been the source of more motion pictures than playwright Neil Simon, who died in August at the age of 91.
   During his most productive 20-year period, from 1968 to 1988, his plays or original scripts were the source for 20 features, along with two television series based on “The Odd Couple” and eight TV movies. At least for a time, audiences couldn’t get enough of Simon’s New York-centered, bickering comedies.
     While I wasn't a fan of most of his works—he couldn’t resist a sentimental emotion or a hackneyed characterization (I never want to see "Sunshine Boys" or "Goodbye Girl" again)—he did write some memorable comedies in his early years and, near the end of his writing life, displayed the skill of making universal a retelling of his youth.
       “The Odd Couple” remains one of the quintessential comedies in Broadway history and, on screen, retains its dark, irascible tone while delivering on its classic comic setup, worthy of Preston Sturges. Jack Lemmon gives one of his defining performances as clean-freak Felix Ungar who, after his wife throws him out and a few half-hearted suicide attempts, moves in with the ultimate uncouth bachelor, Oscar Madison (a snarling Walter Matthau).
     While some of the humor feels dated—and why wouldn’t it after a half a century?—most of the punch lines still work as does the physical humor done to perfection by these superb actors.
     The long scene with the Pigeon sisters, a pair of British gals who live upstairs, on a double date with an anxious Oscar and a reluctant Felix is a superbly written and performed comedy classic.
      Both Matthau and Lemmon over-act to the hilt, seemingly trying to outdo the other, but it works, especially since these characters have gained legendary status.
     Lemmon’s performance owes much to Art Carney’s original stage performance as Felix—I noticed a handful of gesture that come directly from Carney’s Ed Norton in “The Honeymooners.” This role was made for Carney, but he wasn’t a movie star, so Lemmon, the perfect replacement, got the role.
    The more serious side of Simon is best represented by “Lost in Yonkers,” a remembrance play (and movie) about a pair of brothers forced to stay with their strict Jewish grandmother (Irene Worth) and her mentally challenged daughter (Mercedes Ruehl). The story serves as both a coming of age, autobiographical tale as the boys get a large helping of real life away from the protection of their father and a heartfelt tale of the boys’ aunt, who is determined to find a place in the world despite her handicap.
      Ruehl gives an emotionally unrelenting yet thoughtful performance as Bella, whose heart is broken when a young man (David Strathairn) is afraid to commit to their relationship after she stands up for her rights to her mother and shady brother (Richard Dreyfuss, in one of his most entertaining roles). That she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is a crime.
      “Lost in Yonkers” is a finely structured slice of time story that, for me, played better in 2018 than it did when I saw it when it was released.
      There are a few other Simon-penned pictures that I’ve enjoyed: the Peter Falk-led “Murder by Death” (1976) is one of the funniest comedies of the late 70s; the histrionics of Lemmon and Anne Bancroft in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975) crack open a marriage on the brink; and the always hilarious Alan Arkin as a failed lothario in "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (1972).
     Simon may not be considered in the same play writing league with contemporaries Sam Shepard, Edward Albee or August Wilson, but his popularity was unmatched in his time and out of that came a few timeless gems.

                   
FIRST MAN (2018)
     I’m not sure why it took almost 50 years for Hollywood to launch a film about the landing on the Moon. The event was only the most spectacular accomplishment since Columbus ran into North America—just maybe worthy of a motion picture.
     Both a biography of Neil Armstrong and a chronicle of the 1960s space program that leads up to July 20, 1969, the film opens in spectacular fashion, joining Armstrong in mid-flight of a rocky test run into the stratosphere. Better than any films I’ve seen, “First Man” captures the traumatic, beyond frightening experience of travelling outside Earth’s atmosphere.
    This is clearly a job for an exceptional human being; ironically, Armstrong seems anything but exceptional.
     A taciturn loner who recedes further from socializing when his young daughter dies of cancer, the Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) of the film makes up for his lack of personality with an unrelentingly dedication to the space program. It earns his a sport in the Gemini program—the bridge between the early “Right Stuff” guys' Mercury program and the Moon-bound Apollo flights.
     By the early 1960s, the Soviets are leading the space race and no one at NASA or in Washington is very happy about it. The film doesn’t shy away from U.S. failures along the way and the deadly risks faced every time another rocket was launched.
     At the same time that the space program is encountering ups and downs, Armstrong’s relationship with his wife (a riveting Claire Foy, Queen Elizabeth in "The Crown") and family grow more and more distant. He has become so laser-focused on his job and the mission that even the news that he will pilot Apollo 11 happens with little fanfare. Program director Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tells him in the men’s restroom, almost as an aside, that he will be headed to the Moon. No high-fives or champagne popping; Armstrong, like most of the astronauts, are professionals doing a job.
    Director Damien Chazelle grounds the film in that sentiment, letting the audience appreciate the accomplishment of it all, rather than having the characters serve as cheerleaders. Working from another smart script from Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”), Chazelle digs into the details of space travel and the incredible stress placed on everyone in the program.
     The director wisely leaves the dramatic for the real moments, like piloting a capsule to the Moon’s surface. For anyone who was watching the evening of July 20 when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon’s surface—surreal, something out of a Jules Verne novel—this film will resonate deeply. What cinematographer Linus Sandgren is able to recreate is pretty astonishing.
      It’s both an advertisement for the potential of American ingenuity and grit and, at the same time, a sad reminder that space exploration, so glorious in the 1960s and 70s, has been dismissed by the U.S. as too expensive.
     On paper, this would seem to be a role of a lifetime for Gosling, but the performance feels minor compared to the big picture of the story. No doubt he’s nailed Armstrong—the John Glenn of this group—but his unemotional, almost anonymous portrayal left me wanting for a tad more insight into this complex man.
    I wasn’t much of a fan of Chazelle’s previous, critically acclaimed films (“Whiplash” and “La La Land”), but he clearly is a talented filmmaker and his work here should be in the mix at Oscar time. Like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” and Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival,” “First Man” brings a bit of needed awe to the big screen. And this time, it’s about the real thing.


THE THIRD DAY (1965)
     As I move, slowly, into my seventh decade, movies of a certain vintage have become much like comfort foods. Not sure if the phrase "comfort movies" has been coined but for me it perfectly describes films from the mid 1960s to the late '70s.
     In general I'm not talking about the great films of the era, but middle-of-the-road programmers that filled screen between prestige Oscar-bound features.
    It doesn't really matter how good the movies are; just that they feature a handful of familiar faces in the cast and a modicum of snappy dialogue and interesting settings.
     "The Third Day" fits the bill to a T. This nondescript, by the numbers thriller stars George Peppard, at the pinnacle of his fame after hit films "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) and "The Carpetbaggers" (1964), as Steve Mallory, a wealthy, self-indulgent businessman who loses his memory after a car crash. He doesn't remember anything--who he is, his wife, his job, his history, even the woman who died in the car he walked away from.
     But he seems rather pleased to discover that he's married to an attractive, if discontent young woman (Elizabeth Ashley) and runs a large plant that employs most of the town's citizens.
    The day after he arrives back home remembering nothing, he and the company's board must decide if they will sell the company or retool it to save the jobs. A version of this plot showed up in almost every crime-solving TV series of the era, though most made more sense. In almost every scene, one of the character acts irrationally.
     But few films can boast of such a sparkling cast.
     In the first 20 minutes of the film, a familiar face makes an appearance in every scene: Roddy McDowall playing the arrogant, deceitful brother-in-law; Mona Washington as the motherly aunt; Herbert Marshall as the comatose patriarch; Robert Webber as the eager district attorney; Arthur O'Connell as the family's clueless doctor; Vincent Gardenia as a hot-headed union organizer; Sally Kellerman as the trampy woman Mallory's mixed up with; and Arte Johnson (of "Laugh-In" fame) as her piano-playing, vengeful husband.
      I kept expecting Robert Wagner to show up as a  corporate lawyer or George Kennedy to appear as a bartender. And I'm not sure why there wasn't a role for Lee Grant as the randy sister-in-law.
    At the time of this film, Peppard was poised to continue as one of Hollywood's leading men into the 1970s, but personal problems waylaid his film career. Instead, he turned to television, where he starred in 1972-74 as the cool investigator in "Banacek" and then, in the 1980s, as part of the hit comedy-action series "The A-Team."
    "Third Day" director Jack Smight, one of the top TV directors of the 1950s and early '60s, would make use of another great cast in his next film "Harper," a classic Paul Newman detective picture and one of the eras defining movies.
Smight's run of features, before he returned to television, included "Kaleidoscope" (1966) with Warren Beatty, "The Illustrated Man" (1969) with Rod Steiger and "Rabbit, Run" (1970) starring James Caan in John Updike's classic.
      So instead of lamenting the lack of charismatic, familiar supporting players in contemporary films, I'll just keep going back to those classic years, finding movies that, despite lacking in artistic merit, serve as cinematic class reunions.


THE WIFE (2018) and COLETTE (2018)
     Along with the well-documented sexual subjugation that has gone on for centuries, women have also endured men hijacking their artistic achievements through the years, often by those closest to them.
     Good timing brings two such stories--one fiction, one based on historical record--of women whose literary skills were used by husbands to promote their own careers.
    In “The Wife,” Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, the devoted wife of celebrated novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), whose lifetime of work has just earned him the ultimate literary prize, a Nobel. As the celebrations and preparation for the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm commence, the cracks in this long union begin to show, aggravated by a pushy wannabe biographer (Christian Slater), who hopes to circumvent Joe’s insistent “no.”
     What emerges is a woman who has stayed in the shadow of her famous husband, putting aside her own, very promising, writing career, at a time--the 1950s and '60s--when women did that regularly.
    If the plot, especially when it involves their adult son, a struggling writer, feels a bit pat with bickering that becomes redundant, the subtle, multi-layered performances by Close and Pryce carry the film. Swedish director Björne Runge tries too hard to make every scene a dramatic high point, making the film seem a bit stagey.
     Close, who has been nominated six times for Oscars, has never been one of my favorites; her performances usually seem a bit too calculated for my taste. But here she soars, revealing all the frustrations and bitterness that women through the ages have kept to themselves. It is her finest work on the big screen and should score her nomination number seven.
     Keira Knightley plays late 19th Century sensation Colette, who enters the literary world when she marries an older man, who is a friend of the family and a literary con-man. I’ve read about his type before, not uncommon in the era; a high-profile, man-about-town whose bylines in newspapers and magazines have made him famous, but the stories are written by those in his hire.
    He becomes the public face and receiver of accolades though his talent is as an aggregator, not creator.
    In the case of Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy (Dominic West), he enlists his clever wife into his operation soon after they are married, first as an editor and then taking credit for her stories about her youth. The “Claudine” books become a Paris sensation, with their teasing sexuality, vaulting Willy and Colette to celebrity status. Though Colette is the true author, she acquiesces to this masquerade, for a time.
     The film has some holes; leaps of time and logic that had me questioning how close the film was sticking to the truth and making it difficult to lay blame. But director Wash Westmoreland ("Still Alice") certainly knows how to get the most out of his actresses; Knightley hasn't been this convincing since "Pride and Prejudice" when she was 20.
     Eventually, Colette begins exploring her dormant desire for women, becoming a stage sensation in a provocative lesbian review (it has to be seen to be believed; especially considering early 20th Century mores).
     But she does finally received her literary credit and is now remembered as a barrier-breaking writer, while her husband is long forgotten. Time, the avenger.


WHERE IS KYRA? (2018)
     I think Michelle Pfeiffer gives a pretty good performances in this indie picture about a down-on-her-luck middle-aged woman who takes desperate measures to survive. But I'm not sure: trying to be hip and European, director Andrew Dosunmu and his cinematographer Bradford Young ("Arrival") shoot most of the film in long shot and using available lighting. Even in the most dramatic moments, I couldn't swear under oath that the actress is Pfeiffer.
   At least one-third of the film was incoherent because of the way Dosunma shoots and directs the picture. I'm sure he would argue that he's representing the anonymous state of those in Kyra's economic situation and the dark times so many unskilled workers in contemporary America face. Great, but first do no harm. I never imagined I would have to take the title literally.
    He has turned what might have been an interesting little film into an confusing, unwatchable mistake. If I were Pfeiffer--who at 60 can't expect to score many good dramatic roles--I would sue.
    Divorced, unemployed Kyra manages while caring for her elderly mother in a Brooklyn apartment, but once the old woman dies, Kyra faces dire realities that spur her to  impersonate her mother to dip into her bank account and pension checks. (There's an attempt to explain why she doesn't have access to the deceased mother's money, but like the rest of the script--by Dosunma and Darci Picoult--it was presented so vaguely that I missed the detail.)
    I think Dosunma really want to make a silent film--it might have been more understandable.
    Kyra falls into a relationship with Doug (Keifer Sutherland), struggling to get by working as a daycare worker, who tries to offer emotional support, but her questionable ethics get in the way.
     I wanted to understand Kyra, sympathize with her situation, but the director expected me to care without knowing the details. That doesn't work for me.