|The Disaster Artist|
|The Tribes of Palos Verdes|
|Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story|
|The Shape of Water|
The early part of December brings mostly mild (and one strong) recs, with only one mild discommend:
A mild thumbs up for James Franco's "The Disaster Artist," in which he stars (opposite hunky brother Dave) as Tommy Wiseau, the inscrutable, surely-I've-landed-on-the-wrong-planet auteur of the so-bad-it's-beloved cult movie "The Room." The making-of-a-disaster comedy yields some big laughs, but wears a bit thin over the 100-minute runtime, after which we're no closer to knowing where Wiseau comes from, what vaguely English-like language he speaks, or how he made the six mil he pours into this dumpster fire. Still, there is a bizarre pathos to this mystery man, and as one friend said, "I've never seen anything like this movie."
"Wonder Wheel" is one of Woody Allen's non-comedies, and within that category (which also includes the beautiful "Another Woman" and the lovely romantic roundelay "September") it lands on the minor side. Kate Winslet stars as Ginny, the beleaguered waitress wife of a Coney Island carousel operator (Jim Belushi) and a hot mess of hyperacusis and frayed nerves. Her grade-school son is a pyromaniac; her husband's daughter from his first wife (Juno Temple) just ditched her Mafioso husband and moved into their already cramped apartment; and now she's having an impossible affair with a young lifeguard (Justin Timberlake). I was bored by much of "Wonder Wheel" (though not the loving recreation of Coney), with its script of fits, starts and rehashes, but the last 20 minutes bear revisiting. The ending hits with unexpected force, and the strength of Winslet's doomed-never-to-be-appreciated performance reveals itself. I wouldn't be surprised if by the second time I view "Wonder Wheel," I recommend it.
A mild rec for Russia's Oscar entry, Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Loveless," about two bitterly divorcing parents (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin, both good) and the neglected 12-year-old son (Matvey Novikov) it takes them over a day to realize has gone missing. The film can be a bit snoozy as redundancy sets in (and the amorality on display is as uncompromised as it gets), but then Zvyagintsev will give us an image like a lit-up apartment tower in the snowy Moscow sky that you hope will never end. I wasn't sure how to come down on this one, so I deferred to my expert on such matters, Big Scruffy, who pronounced it a "good Russkie movie - nice and bleak."
Brendan and Emmett Malloy’s atmospheric “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” (is there a third brother named Quigley?) grew on me. Jennifer Garner has the showpiece role as Sandy Mason, who moves with ultra-successful husband Phil (Justin Kirk) and kids Medina (Maika Monroe) and Jim (Cody Fern) from the Midwest to the exclusive and exclusionary P.V., where her tenuous attempts to keep herself together quickly give out under the withering glare of the country-club set and the unending supply of Botox-injected newer models. But it’s the kids – Medina, the occasional narrator and a gifted surfer, and especially Jim, the de facto man of the house after Phil takes up with the realtor who sold them their house, but a lost soul who loses himself further in readily available drugs – and some perceptively observed scenes between them that will stick with me.
Craig Gillespie’s generous and compassionate “I, Tonya” makes the convincing case that Tonya Harding was not the scheming ice-queen we remember her as, but a physically and verbally beaten-down heroine who came from nothing, outworked and out-talented everyone, never got the credit she deserved, and had almost nothing to do with the knee-whacking of Nancy Kerrigan. The talented Margot Robbie takes on the role – a daring choice – and does it proud, with able support from Sebastian Stan as the perfectly named Jeff Gillooly, Allison Janney as the mother from hell, Julianne Nicholson as the coach and Paul Walter Hauser – for whom a supporting nom would not be inconceivable – as the hilariously inept bodyguard and self-labeled “counterterrorism expert” who set history in motion.
Samuel Maoz’s Israeli import “Foxtrot” (the country’s selection for Foreign Oscar consideration) opens at the door of Michael and Daphna Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi, memorable, and Sarah Adler) as army officials arrive to announce that their only son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) has died (“fallen”) in combat. Actually, they don’t get the chance, as Daphna faints when she sees them. Later, we shift back in time to a deserted outpost (literally, a single gate crossing in the middle of the desert), where Jonathan and his squad kill time waiting for the occasional camel or carful of Palestinians to approach. Then it’s back to the city, where the army officials’ second announcement seems to take us to the realm of surreality, before a final scene back in the desert that brings it all together. Does Maoz achieve grandeur? The friend I saw it with – who lived in Israel for several years – noted the Israeli tendency to substitute longueurs for genuine drama – but I say yes, it does build up a critical mass of emotional force.
Did you know that Hedy Lamarr is significantly responsible for Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi technology? Amazing but true. Alexandra Dean’s “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” reports in rigorous detail how the huge star with the naughty persona also happened to be – though few knew it – a perpetual inventor who came up with the concept of “frequency hopping” that underlies modern technology and was instrumental in the practice of 20th century warfare. But Americans didn’t want beauty AND brains in their screen icons, and the government had no compunction about screwing her out of her patent. Dean’s well-researched film, including a rare late interview with Lamarr, does her justice.
Finally, the pick of this litter: Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” a transporting and ethereal romantic fantasy that, together with her first-rate work in “Maudie,” marks 2017 as the Year of Sally Hawkins. As the mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito, Hawkins (who’s flat as a pancake, but never mind) again demonstrates an unparalleled capacity to convey the deepest of feelings without words, with just those infinitely expressive eyes and that sly, wry brain. We feel not only her empathy for the Amphibian Man Michael Shannon delights in torturing, but how she receives what he sees in her. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins lend reliable support, and Michael Stuhlbarg, nom-worthy in “Call Me By Your Name,” caps off a terrific 2017 of his own as Shannon’s multifaceted underling. Are the images as fantastic as those in del Toro’s name-making “Pan’s Labyrinth”? For the most part, no. But I still lived every moment of the film in its world.
Off to Vegas this weekend, then back for the late barrage of would-be Oscar contenders. Merry Christmas!