Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

2019 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Six and Noteworthy Films.

Knives Out: Knives Out is a fun mystery flick with comic moments and social satire along with the requisite tension and suspense. Highly successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is turning 85, and is rather critical of his extended family, who sponge off him. The morning after his well-attended birthday party, he's discovered dead, and although the police initially think it's suicide, celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows up and suspects "foul play." Blanc has been hired by an unknown party, but as he and the police dig, they discover that almost everyone had a motive. At the center of everything is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, previously seen in Blade Runner 2049), Harlan's nurse, with whom he's grown quite close. She seems to be one of the few if only characters who likes Harlan for himself, which makes us like her too, and we see much of the film from her perspective. The family members, including characters played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette, like to say Marta's part of the family, but in a nice running gag, they can't even agree on what Spanish-speaking country she's from, and their devotion seems to end at the checkbook's edge. A big fan of mysteries, writer-director Rian Johnson keeps things moving and delivers some shocks along the way, but it's the satire of privileged white people who are far less civilized than they believe that really makes Knives Out distinctive and amusing.

You'll likely see some of the twists coming but not all of them. I appreciated that the biggest incongruity for me was eventually explained. That said, murder mysteries often have an inherent implausibility to them, so it helps to like the genre a bit to go along with the inciting incident and the convention of intricate behind-the-scenes plotting. I think the film probably would be fun to watch a second time but perhaps less interesting past that. Daniel Craig worked hard on his Southern accent, and it's better than the one he used in Logan Lucky, but in interviews he claimed he nailed it and… he didn't. He's still enjoyable to watch, though, and sells at least one key moment. I liked parts of The Last Jedi but thought Rian Johnson mishandled others (review here); I'm much more a fan of Looper (the third film reviewed here) and his original, memorable if somewhat uneven high school film noir, Brick (the fourth film reviewed here). The final scene of Knives Out is nicely done, wordless, pointed and memorable.

Harriet: The general rule for biopics is that the lead performance is notably stronger than the film as a whole, and that holds true for Harriet. It's great to finally see a major motion picture about such a notable historical figure, a black woman whose life story really is quite extraordinary and seemingly great cinematic fodder. English singer, stage and screen actress Cynthia Erivo plays the slave "Minty," who eventually adopts the name Harriet Tubman after she escapes and then returns again and again to rescue other slaves at great personal risk. As if those attempts weren't inherently challenging enough, she occasionally has dizzy spells or passes out due to a nasty head injury she sustained as a slave.

Erivo is a strong screen presence and brings the steely resolves the role demands; she also does a great job singing the rousing credits song, "Rise Up." It's nice to see a core black team for a black woman's story, with director-cowriter Kasi Lemmons, cowriter-producer Gregory Allen Howard and producer Debra Martin Chase. I wanted to like Harriet more than I did, but two factors detracted from it for me. The first is the decision to depict Harriet as having visions and feelings that warn her of danger and steer her to the correct path, like a divine spider sense. Although the historical Harriet was religious and did have visions and dreams, probably related to her head injury, she was also extremely clever, and going the supernatural route strips her of some agency and minimizes her intelligence and inventiveness freeing slaves. The second is a late confrontation between Harriet and a white man from her past. It plays out very much as a typical Hollywood scene, and may resonate for some viewers, but its obvious artifice pulled me out. The style contrasts with the more realistic and harrowing approach of 12 Years a Slave, which I prefer (it's reviewed here). That said, I’m glad Harriet was made and hope more slave narratives are made into films. A good biopic of Fredrick Douglass seems long overdue.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: This is a solid entry and ending to the Dragon trilogy, and if you've seen the others, you'll want to see this one. The Vikings and their dragons are once again in peril, this time due to Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a deadly dragon hunter leading a dangerous gang. In this film, seemingly lone night fury dragon Toothless also gets to experience potential romance when he encounters a female counterpart, a light fury dragon. (Toothless' wooing attempts, spurred on by his literal and figurative wingman Hiccup, make for some of the best comedic scenes.) The Hidden World is really about transitions and letting go. Hiccup faces the prospect of losing his best pal, Toothless, to either a lethal hunter or domestic dragon bliss far away, and does so even as he himself faces marriage with his longtime girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), and all the life changes that entails. Hiccup's feelings toward Toothless are comparable to losing a beloved pet or even perhaps a parent seeing a child leave home, and his ambivalence in this film represents his most adult struggles to date.

The main problem with The Hidden World is that the first film (the sixth one reviewed here) remains the strongest entry in the series by far. Nothing in the two sequels, which are quite good, can compare with the sheer magic of the first flight sequence in the initial film, with lovely animation "camerawork" and the soaring score of John Powell (who returns here as composer). That's not really a fault of the sequels, because narratively, the first film allows for a much more deeply embedded, strong element of discovery and wonder, which the later films can partially capture with new revelations but can't fully match. (To jump genres, the same is true of The Bourne Identity compared to its sequels – it's Jason Bourne's "what did I just do?" reactions and "who am I?" dynamics that make it so interesting, whereas in later films he's aware of his abilities and dealing more with external challenges than internal struggles.) I appreciate, though, that the Dragon franchise has not just tried to remake the first film over and over again, even if it is my favorite. The filmmakers have sought to do something different with each sequel and have Hiccup grow as a person over the course of the trilogy, and they've succeeded. (The secondary characters change and grow, too, which is a sign of good writing.) Plus, you've still got Vikings (some with Scottish accents) and dragons. What's not to like?

Captain Marvel: The first Marvel movie focusing on a superheroine isn't the strongest entry, but it's still decent popcorn fare. It's partially a journey of self-discovery and self-actualization for Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and part 80s/90s buddy flick with Carol and S.H.I.E.L.D's Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) on the road. Danvers fights for the alien Kree Empire against its arch-enemies, the shape-changing Skrulls, but she also suffers amnesia and has special, mighty powers she doesn't fully understand or control. Tangling with the Skrulls, she winds up with access to some extracted memories and they all wind up on Earth in the 90s. (The trailer featured a great shot of Captain Marvel crashing into a Blockbuster video store, which generates a laugh but also establishes the era. Good writing.) Carol eventually encounters people who knew her on Earth and each discovery just seems to lead to more questions. Larson's a good actress and she and Jackson have nice chemistry. Lashana Lynch, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening and Jude Law also have notable roles. The biggest problem with Captain Marvel is that our heroine's powers are not well-defined, most of all their limits, and unbalanced power dynamics are rarely very interesting. Such decisions are more forgivable in an origin story, though. (And I did enjoy all the bits with Goose the cat.)

Spider-Man: Far From Home: The second Marvel Spider-Man film isn't as good as the earlier Homecoming, but Tom Holland remains perfectly cast as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and it's got some entertaining scenes. In this movie, Peter Parker is on a European trip with his high school classmates, but S.H.I.E.L.D's Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) contacts him about saving the planet from powerful elementals. Meanwhile, Parker's fallen for Mary Jane/MJ (Zendaya), and is working up the courage to say something. His best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) encourages him when he remembers but is completely enrapt in a saccharine relationship with Betty Brant (Anguourie Rice). Superhero-wise, Parker's main challenges are hiding his identity while working with Mysterio/Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who claims to the last survivor of another dimension destroyed by the elementals. Parker's hungry for father figures, and he and Beck hit it off well. Marisa Tomei is back as the ridiculously young Aunt May Parker and Jon Favreau is back as Happy Hogan. J.B. Smoove and Martin Starr are quite funny as the kids' overwhelmed teachers and chaperones. And although Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) continues to be Parker's main high school tormentor, the filmmakers do take a moment to humanize him. If you're familiar with the comics, you'll likely figure out some things before the rest of the audience, but the movie's still enjoyable. The final battle is pretty interesting, most of the secondary characters have good moments, and one of the puzzling aspects gets a funny payoff in the end credits. The film does end with a cliffhanger of sorts, though – I was surprised to see Marvel make that particular choice and am curious to see where the studio goes next. (Sony and Marvel/Disney were doing some posturing and threatening about no more Marvel Spider-Man movies, but it would be idiotic not to get Tom Holland into another Spider-Man movie, make a good flick we hope, and get both studios a ton of money.)

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker: (I'm going to be less cautious with spoilers with this one, because you've probably seen it or at least the trailers.) First, the good stuff: it's a Star Wars movie. It's got lightsaber fights and space battles. C-3PO, R2-D2, Lando and Chewbacca get some good scenes; C-3PO probably gets his best scene of the last three chapters. We get one last look at Carrie Fisher as Leia. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) continue their bromance. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a bit more interesting and bit less whiny. Ian McDiarmid is back as the Emperor Palpatine, which is ridiculous from a story perspective, but he makes for a great, scenery-chewing villain. And as Rey, Daisy Ridley remains a compelling heroine. (We also get some Jedi training sequences, which were oddly lacking in the previous film.) The movie's got some other fan-pleasing moments, and some of the scenes from the trailers, including fighting a speeding craft on foot and a lightsaber duel on a tempest-tossed shipwreck, live up to their teaser hype and are pretty cool.

The bad: let's cut the filmmakers some slack due to Carrie Fisher's death, because supposedly she was going to play a much bigger role in The Rise of Skywalker. But it really feels like the studio didn't work out the storyline for all three last films before they started making them. J.J. Abrams returns as director, which is all right because the original pick, Colin Trevorrow, concerned a lot of fans. (His underwhelming job on the Jurassic World films might have cost him the Star Wars job, thankfully.) But Abrams largely throws out what Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi, a film with some significant problems but also a few great scenes. (My review is here.) Why all this talk of "dyads" if that was a major part of The Last Jedi but the term was never mentioned? Why all this mention of the Skywalker and Palpatine families when the entire film series has focused on the Skywalkers (it's in the friggin' name of this one) and we've never met or even heard of any Palpatines beside the Emperor/Darth Sidious? Likewise, why shoehorn in a brief scene of Leia training as a Jedi with an unconvincing narration trying to paper over major story problems of these last three episodes rather than planting those ideas in the earlier films? Why almost completely sideline Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)? Why tease us with a scene that evokes the fantastic Dagobah tree sequence from The Empire Strikes Back and have it last all of 10 seconds? (I'm exaggerating only slightly.) How the hell did the bad guys build this massive death fleet in secret and where did they get the resources for it? Does the Empire (or the First Order) ever invest in major weapons smaller than "planet-killer"? And do the shambling followers of the Emperor have nothing better to do than just sit in bleachers and cheer on his evildoing? Do they ever eat or have semi-normal jobs and have they spoken to their doctors about the dangers of a major Vitamin D deficiency? (Okay, those last few are a bit silly.)

If this were just a standalone Star Wars flick, I'd be less critical. And some of us Star Wars fans love the franchise despite its flaws, including not just the occasional bad dialogue or odd scene, but major implausibilities and head-scratching choices. But The Rise of Skywalker is concluding a nine-film, beloved series, and the best of those, The Empire Strikes Back, was a genuinely excellent film with decent acting, great writing, iconic scenes and significant depth in addition to being part of a pop culture juggernaut. The film that launched it all, Star Wars (later called A New Hope), was a little hokey but had an undeniable magic and energy that captured the imagination of more than one generation. Those films set the standard for the franchise. And although I wasn't expecting The Rise of Skywalker to be as good as those two, it felt, like episodes VII and VIII, to be a film made by committee and often the worse for it. I do think it'll probably be good that Disney has finished with the core nine films now, because any new Star Wars projects should be less constrained by specific story demands or even just expectations, besides a basic desire for a certain level of quality. And I will give The Rise of Skywalker credit for a pretty good, satisfying final scene. More in the…

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

Tolkien: This is a decent but not great biopic of Jonathan Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the English professor most famous for writing the classic fantasies The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Nicholas Hoult is well-cast as the young Tolkien, and captures his insatiable curiosity and love and talent for languages. Lily Collins plays Edith Bratt, the intelligent, artistic young woman he woos. Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney play Tolkien's schoolmates, with whom he grows extremely close. The Tolkien estate did not endorse the film and Finnish director Dome Karukoski (a Tolkien fan) makes some odd choices, as do screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. I questioned some of those decisions more after listening to the commentary and watching the deleted scenes. Tolkien served in the Great War, which was a pivotal experience for him and his schoolmates, but a key scene with one of them during the war was cut. Taking some artistic liberties with reality is to be expected, but some of the real stories of Tolkien wooing Edith are much more interesting than some of the more clichéd scenes we're presented – if you're going to invent things, make them better. That said, there's a marvelous scene with Tolkien using Welsh to get him and his coconspirators out of a jam that also conveys his sheer love of language and its magic, and all the scenes between Hoult as Tolkien and Derek Jacobi as linguistic professor Joseph Wright are delightful. If you're a Tolkien fan, go in with tempered expectations and you'll likely enjoy at least some of the scenes.

You have to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop – the world is a bad place, people are lazy morons, minorities are criminals, sex is sick but interesting. Ask yourself, what would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather? And that's a Fox story.
– Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), Bombshell

Bombshell, with its clever double-entendre title, tackles the real story of sexual harassment at Fox News, most notably by its head, Roger Ailes, and how it was covered up for years. We follow three women: Fox News star Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron); on-air talent Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who is falling out of favor with Ailes; and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a young, aspiring employee who would like to appear on air (a fictional character). John Lithgow play Ailes and Malcolm McDowell is Rupert Murdoch. Bombshell does a good job of depicting the harassment but tries to avoid discussing politics, an odd choice that feels like a glaring omission for anyone familiar with Fox News' overtly political mission.

Parts of the film work quite well. The makeup artists justifiably won an Oscar for their work – Charlize Theron is almost unrecognizable, looking very much like Megyn Kelly and getting her verbal cadences down as well. (There's a good New York Times article about what the makeup department did to recreate the Fox News look for women: blonde hair, heavy eye makeup and lip gloss, short skirts and couches or glass desks to show off their legs – turning the women into Barbie dolls, just as Ailes wanted.) It's another good performance from Theron, and she depicts Kelly as a successful woman who wants to be taken seriously as a journalist, but suffers insults and even death threats after she crosses then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Nicole Kidman likewise gives a solid performance as Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America and Stanford graduate who Ailes often lambasts for not looking pretty or sexy enough, or for expressing political views at odds with the party line. John Lithgow, also done up in impressive makeup as the aging, ailing, overweight Ailes, captures his sharp, politically calculating mind as well as his leering, predatory nature. We see and hear several stories of harassment over the course of the film, but the core scenes focus on Margot Robbie as Kayla, who's young, pretty, ambitious, and fairly naïve. I thought Bombshell was particularly effective at not glamourizing the key harassment scenes at all and giving us a good sense of how degrading and humiliating such experiences are.

We first see Bombshell trying to sidestep politics in the inciting incident for Megyn Kelly, because we only see and hear a snippet of her clash with Trump during a Republican primary debate – her pressing him on his misogyny and him getting very nasty in retaliation. I wonder if the filmmakers had footage rights issues or were just worried that showing too much of Trump would derail the film? I understand not showing much of Trump later, but shying away from showing the full exchange feels like a really bad choice. That fight sets Kelly's storyline in motion. It also shows that she does have principles. (The real Kelly, while quite conservative, often brought up women's issues.) The politics of Fox News and its audience are also key to the Kelly storyline – Megyn Kelly was beloved of the male, white, conservative Fox News viewers, who openly lusted for her, but they turned on her in an instant and sided with Trump when she challenged him. We do see some of the misogyny and even death threats Kelly's subjected to, but not really how endemic sexism is for Fox News viewers as well the company itself – Kelly's high status was contingent on her not being perceived as uppity. We get a better sense of those sexist, mind-your-place dynamics from the Gretchen Carlson storyline, but even so, the most political observation in the entire film is the great quip from Kate McKinnon as the fictional Jess Carr quoted above. Although sexism and sexual harassment are by no means limited to conservative organizations, the extremely conservative views at Fox News, and its dictatorial, hierarchical, conservative power structure, surely contributed to the problem. I'm guessing the filmmakers didn't want to display Kelly's political views too much because they wanted her to be sympathetic. (The worst we hear in Bombshell of Kelly's actual statements is her ridiculous claim that Jesus was white.) Likewise, although Fox News can fairly be called a propaganda network in a way most major media outlets cannot, highlighting that and the deal-with-the-devil aspect of accepting fame and fortune to mislead to the American people risks making Kelly and Carlson less sympathetic. Depicting that type of moral complexity can be achieved, but not quickly or easily. Director Jay Roach is mostly known for comedy, and writer Charles Randolph justifiably shared an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short. Bombshell isn't nearly as successful as that brilliant film, but it's still worth a look. Although it pulls its punches and largely avoids a critique of Fox News and its viewers, Bombshell does capture some dynamics of sexual harassment well and in a manner sympathetic to the victims. (I do wonder how much female input the filmmakers got, but one of the two credited producers is a woman, Dede Gardner.)

By the way, if you watch the Frontline episodes "American's Great Divide: From Obama to Trump," parts one and two, it's striking to see how Megyn Kelly, despite how badly she was treated at Fox News, will still spout party-line, conservative bullshit she must know to be false. I'm sympathetic to her over her treatment by Ailes and Fox News. But I was disappointed to see that some other things haven't changed.

Meanwhile, it's hard to review Bombshell without also mentioning the 2019 Showtime miniseries, The Loudest Voice, based on Gabriel Sherman's book of the same name. Overall, I much prefer The Loudest Voice, but to be fair, it's roughy 350 minutes long in all compared to Bombshell's 109 minutes. The Loudest Voice shows some footage of Megyn Kelly but she's not a major character, although Gretchen Carlson is. (She's played by Naomi Watts, who's incidentally friends with Nicole Kidman.) Bombshell is more tightly focused on sexual harassment and perhaps told more from the women's point of view. That's not to say that The Loudest Voice doesn't depict sexual harassment – it shows plenty of it, and makes us likewise sympathetic to the victimized women. (At least one repulsive scene really captures how a forced sexual act is more about power than the sex per se.) But The Loudest Voice is more a biopic of Roger Ailes, with a great lead performance by Russell Crowe. The series takes us through two decades of Ailes creating and running Fox News. It gives us much, much more of Ailes' politics and how the Fox News approach was extremely innovative, extremely manipulative, extremely conservative and extremely bad for America. It's a much more accurate and in-depth look at Fox News as a political entity and delves into its driving force, Roger Ailes and his paranoid, take-no-prisoners, absolutist psychology. As depicted, Ailes was a true believer in some far right, crazy ideas, like Obama being born in Kenya, but regardless of his personal views, he definitely shilled them relentlessly at Fox. He's basically Rush Limbaugh in his crazy, wingnut world view, but with less charisma and more brains. Ailes is a genuinely smart guy, a hard worker and a master operator, with an instinctive feel for what the conservative Fox News audience wants, because he is them. He's also ruthless, a far right ideologue, and one of the most influential and evil Americans of the past several decades. (Among other things, as the series shows, it's doubtful that Trump would have become president without Roger Ailes.) Crowe and the filmmakers make Ailes fascinating to watch. The supporting cast is quite good, with the aforementioned Watts, Simon McBurney as Rupert Murdoch, plus Sienna Miller, Annabelle Wallis, Seth McFarlane, Josh Stamberg, Aleksa Palladino and Emory Cohen. The Loudest Voice's greatest weakness is that many scenes are necessarily speculative, but enough firsthand accounts of Roger Ailes exist that those scenes ring true in addition to playing well.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: It's a Tarantino movie, and you'll get the usual: some good performances and great scenes, some extremely violent sequences, plus plenty of self-indulgence in an overly long film. We've given two storylines: the main one centers on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading TV star who plays macho tough guys, and his stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The second storyline is about Dalton's next-door neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives with her celebrated director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), although he's barely in the movie. Dalton wants to be more respected as an actor and is anxious about his declining career, leading to bouts of insecurity. Booth is extremely easy-going and thus a good balance for Dalton; Booth also drives Dalton around LA because Dalton lost his license for driving under the influence. Some of the best scenes involve Dalton struggling on the set of a TV western, which includes several interesting exchanges between him and a very mature, serious child actress played by Julia Butters. Booth gives a ride to a young female hitchhiker who lives at… Spahn Ranch, because she's a member of the Manson "family" cult. Meanwhile, we follow Sharon Tate around town as she attends parties, chats with friends and watches a movie she's in.

DiCaprio and Pitt are good both individually and together, with DiCaprio getting to swing between deep emotional extremes over the course of the movie and Pitt mainly oozing effortless charisma. Margot Robbie seems wasted, though, because we don't really get to know Sharon Tate well. She's pretty (and coveted by men) and seems nice, if sometimes to the point of naïveté. But she's often shown alone and thus not speaking with anyone. We barely see any of her relationship with Roman Polanski, which seems like an odd narrative choice, and I'm guessing is because he's currently a controversial figure. Tarantino seems more interested in Sharon Tate as a symbol and icon than a real person.

As for the rest, the film is bizarrely critical of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), portraying him as arrogant, which doesn't seem accurate at all (and has been disputed – and come on, you may be a good fighter, but you ain't beating Bruce Lee). Tarantino has figured out you can be extremely, gratuitously violent and the audience will cheer if you pick really nasty targets. Tarantino does get some notable actors in small roles, with Al Pacino and Bruce Dern being particularly good. I like parts of Tarantino's films (and I'd say Pulp Fiction is still his best and most innovative), but I do think he's massively overhyped and uncritically worshipped in some quarters. (For example, OUATIH is engaging enough, and I can understand it on some top 10 lists, but I do question picking it as the absolute best film of the year over Parasite or a few others. But alternative history fantasies that aren't comedies also seem a bit pointless to me.) All that said, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has some great and memorable scenes, and if you're a fan of Tarantino, DiCaprio, or Pitt, you'll want to check it out.

Uncut Gems: Adam Sandler gives a good performance as a thoroughly unlikeable character, Howard Ratner, a jeweler in New York City who tries to cater to the rich and famous but also has a really bad gambling habit. It's 2010, and Howard sometimes lives in the city with his younger girlfriend and employee, Julia (Julia Fox), and sometimes in the suburbs with his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and their kids; they're supposed to get a divorce after Passover. Howard obtains a rare black opal, the uncut gem of the title, which has an interesting rainbow effect. Howard's spent a long time and considerable money obtaining it. Howard's employee Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is mainly paid to bring in high-profile clientele, and arrives with none other than basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself during his NBA days). Howard can't resist showing off the opal, which Garnett loves and wants to buy, but it's already slotted for auction. Garnett insists on borrowing it for good luck and offers his Celtics championship ring as collateral. Meanwhile, Howard owes a ton of money to a loan shark, Arno (Eric Bogosian), who happens to be his brother-in-law. So Howard starts out in plenty of trouble, tries to gamble his way out of debt, and will lie shamelessly to anyone and everyone. He has a few moments of decency, I suppose, but he's an awful husband, father and boss, a jealous boyfriend and is almost unrelentingly selfish, using everyone around him. The film also looks shot on video, especially in the early scenes, although apparently it was shot on 35 mm film by notable cinematographer Darius Khondji. It's mostly high-key lighting and not his usual moody, noir-ish style at all, but give the camerawork credit for helping create a sense of urgency.

Although I didn't like Howard Ratner much, I did find Uncut Gems became more interesting as it progressed. It plays as a thriller much of the time, and it does make some unconventional and interesting story choices, so it's not a cookie cutter film. Kevin Garnett plays a surprisingly large role in the film and is also surprisingly good, especially in a late scene between him and Howard. And as self-absorbed as Howard is, he has one of his more gracious moments late in the film, not long before the extended, climatic sequence. Howard's master scheme is risky and gutsy, but it's hard not to root for him during it, and it makes for a pretty riveting piece of cinema. (It also took considerable ingenuity by the filmmakers, writer Ronald Bronstein and cowriters and codirectors Josh and Benny Safdie.) Uncut Gems is one of the most divisive films of 2019 – I've encountered people who loathed it and others who adored it. The Weeknd plays a small role as himself, Judd Hirsh plays Howard's father-in-law, and Keith Williams Richards is memorable as Phil, the most violent and menacing of Arno's henchmen. More in the…

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

The King: The main reason to see The King is Timothée Chalamet, an interesting young actor, as England's beloved Prince Hal/Henry V, a potentially meaty role. The film itself is neither fish nor fowl – it strays considerably from history but it's also not really an adaptation of William Shakespeare's plays, either. It includes Shakespeare's invention, Falstaff, but changes him from a comic, boozing, cowardly but larger-than-life character to a sober, quietly courageous, war-weary, wise, and low-key veteran soldier. (He's played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who cowrote the script with the director, Australian David Michôd.) The film likewise has Hal face off with Hotspur, who did exist, but their confrontation is likewise an invention by Shakespeare, from Henry IV, Part 1. That's fine, because it makes for some good scenes. The film borrows the most from Henry V – the French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) sends Hal a tennis ball as an insult, and eventually we get to the main event, the 1415 Battle of Agincourt. But the movie also oddly invents an assassination attempt on Hal, and presents it as the main reason for the reluctant young king to invade France, which contrasts markedly with Shakespeare's Hal, who's eager to seize back France and happy for a pretext. (The King also invents another complicated conspiracy.)

Take The King solely on its own merits and it's somewhat interesting; consider other options and it's more disappointing. As the Dauphin, Pattinson's accent plays a bit comically, which could work for a stage version of Henry V but does not seem to be intentional for the more serious tone here. (Pattinson's somewhat effective in that he's smarmy and unlikeable.) It was nice to see some mud in the Agincourt sequence, but it's presented as the making-you-slip kind rather than the historical accounts' we-have-to-wade-through-this-crap type. That's perfectly fine, but the point is that the filmmakers make a series of choices that aren't that interesting compared to existing alternatives from Shakespeare, history and cinema. I was hoping for a good Battle of Agincourt, which would have forgiven a host of sins, but it's not staged that well. The invented conspiracies of The King make Hal a bit of a dupe and thus less interesting. Edgerton gives a decent performance as Falstaff, but almost completely inverting the character and writing him for yourself to play feels like a vanity exercise. So if you're familiar with any of the source material and watch The King, you'll probably find yourself asking yourself often, what's the point? Why have Falstaff at all, if you're not going to do Shakespeare? Why depict the Battle of Agincourt, a pretty interesting clash, if it's not going to be frickin' awesome? Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V is one of the great Shakespeare adaptations, but it's also simply a great film, with a stunning climatic battle sequence despite a small budget. And it turns out that Shakespeare wrote Hal as a much more intriguing character than Michôd and Edgerton can muster for The King. I don't want to completely bash the film, because if you're a Chalamet fan and don't care much about the history or Shakespeare you'll probably enjoy it much more than I did. But my primary response is: Henry V is a much, much better film, and unless you're completely turned off by Shakespeare, watch it instead.

Motherless Brooklyn: If you're a big fan of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, you might not like this adaptation. Writer, director and star Edward Norton keeps the lead character, the inciting incident and some plot devices, but throws away the main plot and invents a substantially new one with new characters, even moving the story from 1999 to the 1950s. (Lethem gave Norton permission to make changes, at least.) In the new story, a key character, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), is based on the real-life Robert Moses, a New York City public official with multiple titles who significantly reshaped the urban landscape, developing public works but also eliminating some neighborhoods, especially minority ones. Basically, Norton is trying to make Chinatown but for New York City, weaving some fictionalized real history into a film noir. (There's a bit of Devil in a Blue Dress, too.)

The protagonist of Motherless Brooklyn is Lionel Essrog (Norton), who along with most of his coworkers was an orphan essentially adopted by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who runs a detective agency. Lionel has Tourette syndrome and his tics and verbal outbursts get worse with distress. He also possesses a remarkable memory, though, and can recall everything he's seen and entire conversations verbatim. His tics unsettle many of the people he meets, but Frank finds Lionel's gifts useful for their detective work and has always been kind to him; he's a father figure. Frank asks Lionel and another employee, Gilbert, to serve as a backup for a meeting with unknown people with seemingly powerful connections. The upshot is that Frank winds up dead, and Lionel is determined to find out whodunnit. His condition makes him both ill- and well-suited for the task.

Norton's invented story takes over from there. Lionel meets some interesting people on his quest for the truth, most notably Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who works for Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), one of the people fighting against Moses Randolph to protect minority neighborhoods. A neighborhood gadfly named Paul (Willem Dafoe) seems to know all the local history and behind-the-scenes deals. Michael K. Williams plays a jazz musician identified only as "Trumpet Man" in the credits, who seems loosely based Miles Davis for both his talent and general social outlook. Bobby Cannavale is Tony Vermonte, the most ambitious and probably sleaziest of Lionel's coworkers, who effectively takes over the detective agency; Leslie Mann plays Julia, Frank's widow. Credit Edward Norton for assembling a fine cast, who all give good performances, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw a standout. I had mixed feelings about the film – Norton is a good actor, but at times the entire venture, including his desire to play a disabled character, feels like an enormous vanity project with shades of the Hollywood stars satirized in Tropic Thunder. Given that Norton largely abandoned the source material, I'd have preferred that he title his film something else instead. Some of his choices are engaging; others felt too tidy. It might be interesting to watch the film again with Norton's commentary and any behind-the-scenes disc extras. (Lastly, Radiohead's Thom Yorke wrote a moody, original song for the movie, "Daily Battles," which I quite liked and thought fit the movie, even if it was a bit anachronistic. It made the initial nomination list of 15 for Best Original Song but unfortunately did not make the final shortlist of 5.)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters: I always want more kaiju fighting and less humans jabbering. Some of the monster shots are cool (they're called "titans" instead of kaiju in the film) and this latest American Godzilla flick features a pretty impressive human cast, particularly Ken Watanabe, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Zhang Ziyi and David Strathairn, rounded out by Millie Bobbie Brown, Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, Charles Dance and Thomas Middleditch. The plot, such as it is, involves radicals who want to awaken the dread "Monster Zero" to restore balance to the Earth… by killing tons of humans, I guess, and only Godzilla can save the day. The film does not remotely sell such villain rationalizations as well-intentioned and plausible, but really, we just need any excuse for some big monster battles. Kyle Chandler's a decent actor, but I got a little sick of the filmmakers having him constantly kaiju-'spaining to the one Japanese guy, supposed expert Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). At least Watanabe's given a fine scene later. It's nice to see Zhang Ziyi again, but her character supposedly has been studying the titans for years but seemingly uncovers key information through a quick, casual web search instead. The film makes at least one bizarre jump, skipping over the good guys discovering a crucial development and cutting right to them pursuing the bad guys. The film also just runs out of ideas and repeats itself in key beats (more in the spoilers). The different monster promotion posters and early trailers were great, but the movie itself is less engaging. The 2014 Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards (reviewed here) remains a better American Godzilla flick, but I do credit this latest film, like its predecessor, for creating some sense of wonder about the kaiju/titans/monsters, and it is fun to see Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah, along with the lovable Gojira/Godzilla.

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

The Laundromat: I appreciate director Steven Soderbergh's prodigious output and willingness to experiment, but the quality of his films can vary wildly and sometimes I wish he'd slow down and develop a script more. The Laundromat is ambitious, essentially trying to be The Big Short but focusing on the so-called Panama papers, which exposed how rich individuals and corporations hide and launder money in offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes and other obligations. The movie boasts an impressive cast, most notably Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as suave, rich businessmen who explain to the audience how the crooked system works, and Meryl Streep and James Cromwell as victims of a tragedy, with justice blocked by a series of shell companies and semi-legal financial skullduggery. The film also mixes in the tale of Simone (Jessica Allain), who uncovers her rich African father's infidelity and is bribed with questionable assets, a Chinese money laundering scheme featuring some dark threats, and a shady German conglomerate. The result is a bit of a mess, with some interesting scenes and scenarios that never really build to a unified whole, further marred by a didactic approach in the home stretch. The Laundromat's heart is in the right place, but pulling off something as brilliant as The Big Short (reviewed here) is extremely difficult. It demands understanding tricky material and somehow explaining and it making it cinematic; it requires taking a global scandal and crafting a coherent narrative with actual characters; it begs for a satirical outlook at times but also human depth. The Laundromat deserves some points for ambition, but the project feels rushed and woefully, glaringly underdeveloped. Given the team involved, it's disappointing that no one seemed to notice.

Booksmart: Two studious, high-achieving high school seniors who have sacrificed fun discover right before graduation, to their shock, that several of their seemingly slacker classmates are actually pretty smart and going to prestigious schools. Feeling they've been missing out, they become determined to have a wild night and live it up before the graduation ceremony. It's a good premise with plenty of comedic potential, especially because they're such novices at acting out. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is more brash and outgoing; Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is shy, a lesbian and inexperienced. The actresses sell the goofball camaraderie of the duo and also their occasional clashes. Actress Olivia Wilde does a nice job in her feature directorial debut, and surely it helped to have a female director and four female writers for a female-centered teen flick. I enjoyed Booksmart, but it suffered for me from being overhyped and because a few key scenes (a fight with witnesses, the actual graduation) felt pretty conventional, in contrast with the more authentic and interesting friendship at the film's core. It's a good high-school buddy, coming-of-age movie and worth seeing. But I've enjoyed other films in this genre much more, including 2017's Lady Bird (reviewed here, and also with Beanie Feldstein) and 2007's Superbad (the sixth film reviewed here, and interestingly starring Feldstein's older brother, Jonah Hill). Your mileage definitely may vary on that front, though, and I imagine some viewers will like Booksmart best of those three.

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