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Fri09182020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Adam Driver busts out a spontaneous piano-bar rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” in Marriage Story. That alone justifies taking the time to watch the film, now streaming on Netflix.

Fortunately, there are other reasons besides Driver’s surprisingly amazing voice to see the movie … actually, a lot more. Driver and Scarlett Johansson are incredible in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s best movie yet—an alternately searing, touching and hilarious look at a marriage’s end times.

Nicole and Charlie Barber work together in a theater company; she’s a performer, while he’s the director. The movie starts with them deciding to go through a divorce; they promise each other things will remain amicable, and lawyers won’t get involved. Nicole will go to Los Angeles and pursue film acting, while Charlie stays in New York to work on his latest play getting to Broadway. They are determined to share custody of their young son. This will be a pleasant divorce.

Then … well, the lawyers get involved.

Early in the film, you may wonder why these two are getting divorced. They’re both fairly calm about it; heck, you might even think there’s a chance they can pull out of the nosedive and reconcile.

Nope. This director will not be trafficking in easy endings. Baumbach knows two people can really love each other, yet put themselves through a progressive, scorching hell. Nicole tries to remain civil, but Charlie has done stuff that’s going to result in rougher proceedings. Nicole gets herself a lawyer in Nora (Laura Dern, being the best Laura Dern ever); Charlie eventually caves in and gets one, too, in Bert Spitz (a funny Alan Alda) and, later, Jay (an even funnier Ray Liotta).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this film includes the most realistic, earth-shattering, devastatingly honest marital fight I’ve ever seen in a movie. The participants in this scene must have needed some sort of assistance when it was all over. Driver and Johansson do things in this film you will not soon forget. It’s not just the moments when they tear into each other; they do a credible job of letting you know this isn’t simply a case of two people falling out of love: They still love each other, and that’s what makes the vitriol so hard to watch. While Baumbach and his cast definitely show the reasons for the marriage’s failure, the movie allows for you to wish things will get better—even as they are getting far worse. It’s so well written that it’s scary.

Randy Newman puts forth a score that is playful, hopeful and bright, even when the movie goes bleak. It’s almost like the music is there to soften the blows. It’s one of the year’s best scores, and one of the best of Newman’s storied career.

Adding to the amazing supporting cast alongside Dern and Alda is the legendary Julie Hagerty, she of Airplane!, Lost in America, What About Bob? and the vastly underrated Freddy Got Fingered. She plays Nicole’s mom, also an actress, and she’s the funniest part of the movie. Her participation makes the hard stuff go down easier.

I expect there will be a cavalcade of Oscar nominations for this one—and there damned well should be. It’s one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best and most honest films about relationships ever made. Baumbach has gone next-level with Marriage Story—and you won’t soon forget the ballad of Nicole and Charlie.

Marriage Story is now streaming on Netflix. It’s also playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Elvis fans know that he had an identical twin brother, Jesse, delivered stillborn about a half-hour before Elvis’ birth. Ever since, people have asked: What would’ve happened if Jesse had lived?

The Identical, one of those “faith-based” movies like God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real and Jesus Loved Jellybeans, is a take on the surviving-Elvis-twin premise, replacing Elvis and Jesse Presley with the fictional Ryan Wade and Drexel Hemsley, both played by real-life Elvis impersonator Blake Rayne.

Getting the rights to Elvis’ music would cost more than three new Cadillacs, so the producers of this dreck wrote some crap Elvis copycat music and a shameless script that stars Elvis without really starring Elvis. I wish Lisa Marie Presley would sue the makers of this movie for obviously stealing her dad’s likeness, but then she would have to actually see this movie, and I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone.

Somehow, this aberration attracted talented actors like Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Seth Green and Joe Pantoliano. However, it’s bad. It’s so bad that one viewing could cause septic shock due to cinematic shit entering your bloodstream through the eyes and ears.

The movie starts with Rayne as Drexel, the brother who has grown up to be rich, sitting in his limo and seeing a vision of people picking cotton in a Depression-era field. It then flashes back to the Depression, when a couple decided to give up one of their twin newborn boys, because they couldn’t afford two little brats.

That boy, Ryan, is raised by a preacher and his wife (Liotta and Judd) with a big Jesus influence and a push toward making him a pastor. The film is peppered with scenes of Liotta delivering fire-and-brimstone sermons—sermons that get unintentionally funnier and funnier as his character ages under prosthetic makeup. Young Ryan loves Jesus, but, of course, he’s got rock ’n’ roll in his bones, evidenced by his sweet dance moves when he visits an evil honky-tonk bar. He dabbles in music, writing Elvis-like songs with his hip drummer friend (Green, a long way from Robot Chicken).

Ryan has no knowledge of his famous brother due to some weird pact Liotta’s character made with his birth father to not mention Elvis Drexel until both birth parents were dead. So, while Drexel lives in a house called Dreamland and makes bad surf movies, Ryan is joining the Army and singing in honky-tonk bars.

It’s worth noting that Rayne is 40, but this movie asks him to be in his teens for a good hunk of its running time. Rayne does look and sound like Elvis, but he’s missing some of that Presley bravado. Actually, he’s missing all of that Presley bravado. This guy has no business being on a movie screen playing a character who is supposed to parallel Elvis Presley. His act should be reserved for state fairs and cheap casinos.

The whole movie is bizarre beyond words, made even weirder by the fact this is a movie the producers want church groups to attend. It’s a PG film, but the only thing that makes the movie PG is a scene in which Ryan refuses beer at a bar where “reefer” is being smoked.

I watched this movie in complete disbelief—totally aghast, mouth agape, and laughing out loud at its wretchedness—while sitting in a completely empty movie theater. The music, with such wannabe hits as “Boogie Woogie Rock and Roll” and “Sunrise Surfin’” is inexcusably awful, and the “Jesus Loves You” undertones are the equivalent of somebody walking up and smashing you in the face with a Bible and then shoving its pages down your throat while you are lying on the ground, unconscious and bleeding.

This was supposed to be the movie that made Blake Rayne a household name. If it succeeds in that, from now on, when my dog vomits on the household carpet, I will refer to it as “Blake Rayne-ing.”

The Identical is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Michael Shannon is his usual terrific self as Richard Kuklinski, aka The Iceman, one of the most notorious killers in American history. During his run, Kuklinski killed as many as 250 people as a solo assassin and mob hitman.

The Iceman director and co-writer Ariel Vromen has made an impressive-looking movie, and he stocked it with good people, including Winona Ryder as Kuklinski’s wife, who allegedly didn’t know about her husband’s deadly ways until the day of his arrest. Chris Evans (Captain America!) is great as Mr. Freezy, a murderous accomplice who shows Kuklinski how to murder with cyanide.

Ray Liotta reminds viewers that he is one of cinema’s great bad-asses as real-life crime figure Roy Demeo, who initiated Kuklinski into his gang by having him murder a random, innocent man. Yes, that’s David Schwimmer of Friends fame playing a long-haired, mustachioed Demeo henchman.

The film looks great; the subject matter is captivating; and Shannon brings a true menace to the role. However, it does feel a bit mundane and formulaic at times. Much of this can be attributed to a weak, generic musical score by Haim Mazar. He adds a level of melodrama that seems out of place, deadening dramatic moments rather than heightening them.

Considering the the work Shannon does here, it’s a shame the picture doesn’t totally come together. I’m convinced a reworked music soundtrack (or heck, even deleting the soundtrack) would make this a more-powerful viewing experience.

The real-life Kuklinski died seven years ago in prison after a series of infamous interviews that ran on HBO.

Special Features: You get a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes—and little more. The film is slated for Blu-Ray release on Tuesday, Sept. 3.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Derek Cianfrance, who helmed the devastatingly brilliant Blue Valentine, raises his ambitions for The Place Beyond the Pines, a gripping film experiment that works on every level.

Cianfrance makes a lot of unconventional moves this time out. There are many stories in this movie, with a strong emphasis on many characters. Cianfrance finds a way to focus on these characters in an efficient way that doesn’t have viewers jumping from one story to another from scene to scene. The stories progress chronologically over a period of about 16 years, with some characters fading away as others take over. The result is long, but never boring.

The film starts with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a stunt-motorcycle driver, as he leaves his trailer and heads for his evening gig. The shot establishes that although Luke is a semi-celebrity on the carnival circuit, he’s undeniably lonely and isolated.

Luke gets some surprising news from ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), and his life trajectory takes a drastic shift. He moves from doing stunts to robbing banks, a decision that will bring him face to face with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a terrible haircut. Avery finds himself thrust into upstate New York law enforcement with the big boys, which includes being around a lot of corruption. (Ray Liotta is one of the cops, so there you go. Bad stuff always goes down when Liotta is in the mix.)

Both Luke and Avery have 1-year-old sons, and the film ultimately deals with their stories when the kids hit the age of 17. AJ (Emory Cohen) is Avery’s son, a neglected product of divorce who has a marble-mouth, a taste for drugs and a violent temper. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is Luke’s son, a mild-mannered loner who knows little about his father and who gets high a lot. The two sons cross paths and become friends, and the film becomes a startling look at the results of bad fathering.

The movie is always good, but it is perhaps at its best when Gosling occupies the story. Gosling got off to bad start this year with his turn in the lousy Gangster Squad, but his performance here puts him back on track. Luke has similarities to the dark, brooding Driver from Drive (and like Driver, Luke is prone to violent outbursts). Gosling brings out sensitivity in Luke that makes him all the more tragic when his crime spree spirals out of control.

Cooper, recently Oscar-nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, is Gosling’s equal in this film, making Avery virtuous at first, but prone to devious leanings. Avery’s ambitions lead to broken marriages and a miserable kid, canceling out any heroic deeds from years before. His work here is just as strong as his work in Playbook.

As for Cohen and DeHaan, they provide Pines with an absorbing final act. It’s usually a good thing when you get a movie with a couple of memorable characters in it. Well, this film has a whole cast’s worth of memorable characters, and all of the actors get the screen time they deserve.

Mendes heads the supporting cast with an authority that she has never shown before. She’s nothing short of terrific, and it’s a performance that should open some new doors for the veteran actress. The ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn (so good in Killing Them Softly) gives a wonderfully quirky performance as Robin, Luke’s only true friend and confidant. Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast with powerful work.

Cianfrance has made a beautiful movie, from the lush camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, to the haunting, excellent piano based soundtrack by Mike Patton (yes, THAT Mike Patton, from Faith No More). The film has something beautiful to boast in every frame. It’s a true work of art.

It’s also good for a few doses of adrenaline, something that was absent from the somber Blue Valentine. The bank robberies and subsequent chases are uncomfortable, fast and tense. Luke’s showdown with Avery after a memorable foot chase is a great movie moment.

Anybody thinking The Place Beyond the Pines is just a movie about a dude on a motorcycle robbing banks (as commercials have implied) will be in for a big surprise. It’s a sprawling work about the sins of the father—and it’s one of the year’s best films so far.

The Place Beyond the Pines is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6588; www.camelottheatres.com); and the Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730; www.thepalme.com).

Published in Reviews

As I watched Brad Pitt's Killing Them Softly, from director Andrew Dominik, I sat in a virtually empty theater with a few friends and several other patrons. The movie is a slow, meditative and strangely beautiful examination of bad people, and I could sense it was testing people's patience.

I kept hearing the relentless "tap, tap, tap" of restless-leg syndrome coming from somebody behind us. I heard a lot (a lot) of deep sighing from the few people who were there, along with rustling as they fidgeted.

What I am trying to say is that Killing Them Softly requires great patience while viewing. This is a movie that takes its time, features more than a few wordy monologues, and has lots of poetic slow-motion shots.

Pitt plays Jackie, a smooth, shady type called upon to clean up a situation gone bad regarding an organized-crime card game. The film is set about four years ago; the country is in recession, and that recession has spread to crime. So when the card game—a big money generator—goes down, something has to be done.

The big card game is off due to a series of robberies at the games, some of them inside jobs, some of them not. People are going to die, and it's Jackie's job to make sure that it all goes off without a hitch.

The result is an interesting look inside what makes a crime syndicate tick. I enjoyed seeing Pitt's Jackie discussing his killing plans with a buttoned-up type (played by Richard Jenkins) while parked in a swank car.

I also liked seeing a hired hit man (James Gandolfini) drinking heavily and bitching about his wife—right before he's supposed to pull off an important job. Jackie, essentially his boss, acts like an antsy shift supervisor who knows the cash drawer is going to come up short when the bell tolls, because his employee is hitting the bottle.

Dominik previously made a movie in this same vein, and it even starred Pitt as another criminal type: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a similar, meditative vibe about it. Audiences were split over that film's beauty and its slow pacing. Killing Them Softly is producing a similar reaction.

In a way, Jackie represents the sort of criminal Jesse James was in his day, although Jackie is hampered by modern problems regarding money and technology. Dominik uses speeches by Barack Obama and other political types as background noise, constantly reminding the likes of Jackie that the landscape is changing: When the average Joe is having trouble making a buck, it results in less money for stealing and paying hit men.

Ray Liotta endures what has to be one of cinema's all-time-worst beatings, full of blood, broken bones and vomit. I've read comments about how Dominik romanticizes or glorifies violence with some of his more-poetic killing sequences. Hey, the scene involving Liotta getting his clock cleaned more than balances things out. It's brutal.

Pitt is a movie star of the highest order, and every moment he spends onscreen in this film amplifies that point. Jackie is a despicable character, and while Pitt doesn't necessarily make him all that likable, he does make Jackie funny in a sinister way; he's always engaging.

I really liked the use of Gandolfini. I pictured his Tony Soprano all washed up, relegated to taking killing assignments and drinking himself to oblivion. No, he's not Tony in this movie, but I'm sure the connection wasn't lost on him or Dominik.

Critics like Killing Them Softly, while audiences are giving it an "F" (according to Entertainment Weekly's moviegoer polling). I guess that qualifies Dominik as a "critical darling"—and somebody who is going to have a hard time procuring big budgets for movie ideas in the future.

Killing Them Softly is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews