Where’d You Go Bernadette directed by Richard Linklater. 2019.

With Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig.

 

What a pleasure to take my mind off what the president has done today to bring our country to the brink of disaster. This movie answers my quest for a diversion about talented people getting to create things that are important.

Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox, Emma Nelson as Bee Branch and Billy Crudup as Elgie Branch

Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) is an architect who quit practicing under discouraging circumstances twenty years prior to the time of the movie. She and her techno guru husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and teen daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), live in Seattle, home of Microsoft and Amazon. Elgie is working on an artificial intelligence product called Samantha 2. Bee faces what to do about high school, having just aced eighth grade at her progressive private school.  They live in a repurposed but extremely deteriorated former reform school for girls next to a pristine suburban home maker, Audrey, played deliciously by Kristen Wiig. It isn’t stated, but Bernadette probably had grand plans on how to renovate the oversize building into a suitable home, but they never came to fruition, and you see the leaking pipes, overgrown brambles.  Even the dog suffers, having been trapped inside a confessional that requires a rescue with a ladder.

Cinematography points to the isolation of Bernadette, out on the sea, alone, surrounded by ice floes.  She is always alone, unless with Crudup and daughter, in a very fancy car (which is alienating– how many moms bring their daughters to school in a Jaguar? How obnoxious!).  Bernadette prefers to talk to her online assistant, a non responsive though major character.

The script includes certain very tender scenes, which veer on the sentimental, for instance Bee and Bernadette singing together in their car.  In order for us to learn the back story of Bernadette’s isolation, there is too much of a catch up dialogue in a scene with Laurence Fishbourne, her former colleague.  This very one sided conversation ends with the question: “Are you done?”  I wanted to shout Amen!

Bernadette is a benighted member of a very white collar profession, a genius who got a grant from Mac Arthur, then faded away.    The privilege is earned, but still, it is sort of tiresome to watch such privilege.  Bee, the girl who was long awaited, who Bernadette wanted for so long, should have been the narrator, but as a result of the star power of Cate Blanchett, who admittedly commands the screen, every inch of it, at all times, takes over, and changes the point of view of the story that made the book compelling.  We always know where Bernadette is.  It becomes a bit of a yawn  to see the plot play out with a happy ending.

However, there are some funny bits.  For instance, dueling suburban stay at home moms with dueling hair cuts.  Kristen Wiig is perfect as the foil, a “gnat” deemed annoying and unimportant to her superior neighborhood’s genius who dominates, with her unruly blackberry rambles.

Did Bernadette know that removing them would cause the collapse of the whole bank, resulting in major damage to Audrey’s house?  This part of the satire is very well preserved from the book, and works.

Elgie is a bit of a cipher until he stages his intervention to cure Bernadette of her mental illness.  Speaking of which, mental illness is no joke.  If Bernadette is genuinely mentally ill, should we be thinking that her escape into the Antarctic is a big laugh riot?   Cate Blanchett knows how to command a picture and this one is no exception.  She dominates the movie to the point where it is not appropriate.

Bee is lonely for her mom. She misses her the instant she goes missing.  Scenes of mother and daughter seem authentic, though when they come, it is at the expense of others, which makes you wonder, is this the only value Bernadette has taught her daughter, that  she is superior to others?

Sets serve the story as does use of technology.  Seattle is a character unto itself.  The movie has a major subplot about technology, how we entrust it with our lives until it is extremely unsafe.

Because there is a thick comedic vein running through the movie, I didn’t mind that all the misdeeds went unpunished, that Audrey turned out to be capable of extreme discretion, that the family remained intact.  It is a refreshing thing to be wooed by a comedy with half a brain that assumes you would deem a vulgar musician a villain. As a fan of the book, though, I found this adaptation disappointing.

 

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The Farewell directed by Lulu Wang (2019)

With Awkwafina as Billi, Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai.

the-farewell-movie nai naiA simple story of a grandmother, “Nai Nai,” (Shuzhen Zhao) diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer is complicated when her Chinese family won’t tell her, and the American émigré granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), feels conflicted about it. No one can tell Nai Nai that she is dying.  Everyone knows but her.  A wedding gathers all relations from other countries ostensibly for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, but really to spend time with Nai Nai before she dies.

The complexity of emotions is not limited to feelings for the grandmother.   We learn what it is like to be uprooted from China and plunked down in the United States, and the overall reticence of parents surrounding death when Billi was very young.  There is a well acted scene with Billi at a birthday party where everyone is singing happy birthday to a young colleague or friend in the US, and all she can think of is that her grandmother is dying, and she has to go to China to be with her.  Billi’s parents don’t want her to go because she wears her emotions on her sleeve, but you can see her pretending to be happy at the birthday party, and even mouthing the lyrics.  That is one of the lessons her grandmother teaches her in advance of the wedding:  pretend to be happy when you see your aunts.  Don’t pout when people ask you to sing.  Put on the face you have to wear at these events.

The grandmother has the best part in the movie.  She is lovable, uncomplaining, lively, a unifier of the family.  She sticks up for herself and recognizes loneliness as a disease and conquers it with Mr. Li, her roommate.  Shouzhen Zhou performs flawlessly.  Awkwafina must rise to her level, and does.

Billi is a bit down on her luck, short the rent money, rejected for the Guggenheim, still dependent on parents, almost left behind at the wedding.  A vivid scene in a laundromat has her landlord’s daughter, perhaps another Chinese immigrant, pointing out to Billi  who has been late for the rent two months in a row:  “You know if you left we could charge twice the rent.”

Billi does make her way to China, and is not the one to reveal Nai Nai’s diagnosis.  The men in the family are much more mawkish.  But Billi learns something deeper about herself and her feelings, recalling what it was like to be ripped apart by her parents’ expatriation.  The twist at the end makes all of the repetitive scenes in the beginning worth it, that and the beautifully photographed ensemble photography of the whole family walking down the street, all approaching the hospital to prevent Nai Nai from getting the x ray results.

It is rare to see a movie hinging on the love of a grandmother for her granddaughter, and vice versa, but rarer still to see the whole family drawn together by love.  How encouraging and human – More from Lulu Wang!  Please.

family

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Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino. 2019.

with Leonardo diCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie.

An alternative history of the Sharon Tate murders on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles in August 1969 is only part of the story.  The movie features Tate, Jay Sebring, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme, who were real victims and criminals involved in a senseless massacre.  Violence is forestalled for a long time except for the cartoonish clips of TV cowboy Rick Landon, the main fictional character–  in his show, Bounty Hunter and action movies where he is required for instance to torch Nazis with a flamethrower.   When it does come, wham, bang! just as Pacino as Schwarzs, Landon’s agent, acts out a Batman scene– look out.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Al Pacino

The first violence erupts with a stand off between Cliff (Pitt), Rick’s stunt man, and Bruce Lee.  Lee makes the mistake of boasting that he could beat Muhammed Ali.   Lee’s daughter has complained about her father’s portrayal in the movie and you can see why, since he is a bit of an idiot, making a boast like that.  He also makes strange sounds that don’t seem authentic to the martial art he is practicing.

The story focuses on Landon’s career, his depression, alcoholism and feelings as a nearly washed up actor specializing in westerns.  Cowboy TV shows are waning, and his efforts to enter the movie business mean going from leading parts to heavies in bad movies.  Will he be doomed to play villains in B movies?  Should he move to Italy and make spaghetti westerns?

These two guys depend on each other.  DiCaprio’s  cowboy actor with his boyishly round face makes it hard to believe that he would be cast in Clint Eastwood type shows and movies.  But he does his best to act the part of a has been who is groping for the next stage of his career.  Whenever Brad Pitt shows up things get a little better.   A raised eyebrow from Pitt stands in for a whole lot of shouting and carrying on from any other actor.  DiCaprio shows his self disgust as he messes up a take in a movie by breaking windows, chastising himself, vowing to quit drinking, and yet somehow all I can think is, when do I get to see Brad Pitt again?

There are problems with pacing, especially when Margot Robbie as Tate sits through her silly movie, the camera aimed at her dirty bare feet, finally freed from her white go go boots.  Her dancing at a groovy party must stand in for her whole personality and character.  Couldn’t she have been given something to say besides that she wanted to see the movie she was in with Dean Martin?

Even with the mildly sexist treatment of her character, the best scenes do feature women. When Rick faces down his juvenile co-star, Julia Butters, while they are reading, during a break from shooting, the movie suddenly comes alive as Rick relates the book he is reading about an injured bronco buster to his own life.

Whenever Cliff passes the sexy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and then finally picks her up and checks out the Spahn Ranch to make sure that George Spahn is all right, the scenes between Pitt and Qualley have chemistry.

When he sees the place where he used to shoot westerns overrun by hippies,   he smells a rat.  Even though Charles Manson is not there physically, his presence is felt.  Cliff seeks out George Spahn, the owner of the ranch, and in a series of suspenseful scenes, he finds him, but not before we fear the worst.

The movie’s story telling at its best shows Tarantino has not lost his mojo the same way Dalton has not lost his ability to act.  The movie is about movies.   Sharon Tate was the essence of it in 1969: happy, senseless, pretty.  When she was murdered by a bunch of hippies, the business began to change, and whether Tarantino can accept that remains to be seen.  Weren’t the seventies supposed to be when movies became better by showing us a bit of darkness, and perhaps even the truth?

 

 

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Minding the Gap directed by Bing Liu. 2018. Documentary.

Three young men, Liu, Zack, and Keire, are trying to grow up, become men, beginning as hyperkinetic teens devoted to skateboarding.  The footage of the skateboarding is elegant and fluid and shows the beauty of movement.   Liu, the director, is one of the skaters, and I wondered if he filmed while riding.   In Rockford, IL where they live, there is little employment that can keep them going and fed.

Zack has a pregnant girlfriend, Nina, who gives birth to Elliott, then leaves him because he is abusive and alcoholic.  Zack goes downhill rather quickly, and his alert baby is onto it.  Nina, the mother, claims she is a little girl.  The whole question of maturity hovers over each of these people who look like adults, but cannot demonstrate that they really are.  Zack’s mother left when he was two.  His father was not around.  It is not surprising that he abandons his family.  But it is disturbing to watch his deterioration before our very eyes,.

Zack and Elliot

Zack moves to Denver, leaving his son behind.  He works in a fast food restaurant.  His son Elliott has charisma and for a short time is the star of the movie.  He is just a pregnancy bump in the beginning, someone to be diapered, and then starts walking, talking, and learning how to be in the world, giving us a chance to appreciate the many years Liu spent filming his friends, how it adds depth to their story.

But the gist of the story is how these three young men, so damaged in their childhoods, are forced into becoming men before they are ready without the love that would prepare them to become loving in return.   They push away the pain of what they face in their troubled childhoods.  All three lived with extremely abusive fathers.  Liu’s mother was choked by her husband who also beat her sons.  He has a half brother who talks about his father being abusive.

“I don’t want to be alone.”  says Liu’s mother, trying to explain why she didn’t leave the man who was abusing her and her children.  It does not seem fair to Liu’s mother that he uses her as a subject when it is excruciating to both of them.  An act of masochism or sadism or could it be revenge? “But it hurts you?”  “Yeah.  But so did my dad.  And I loved him to death.”

What does it mean to be a man?  Working, taking care of your family, loving your wife, none of these things seem possible.  They all just want to be skateboarding.  It takes them out of their troubles.  The profile of the young men parallels the profile of Rockford and its hard times.

Keire at his father’s grave

The filmmaker gets close to each of the people – the three subjects—and their parents – and gets them to reveal their inner selves.   It almost feels like a violation of privacy.    Keire, who lives with his mother, rues having said something mean to his father just before he died. Keire’s mother tells Liu at one point that he is getting too personal, and needs to take a break.   Keire goes to the cemetery on Father’s Day in search of his dad.  Zack drinks constantly.  Keire who bonds with his brothers and his nephews, and keeps in touch with his mother seems in a much better place.  There is frank discussion about racism.

The filmmaker and one of the main characters, Liu

Men need positive role models to become successful.   It is tragic and predictable that Zack would abandon his young son, and beat his mother.“You can’t beat up women. But bitches need to get slapped sometimes.” says Zack.  What will Elliott become?  Who will he look up to ?  His father?  What will he make of this movie when he is old enough to understand it?

Keire moves to Denver, perhaps to join up with Zack.  We do not learn what happens to the child support suit pressed by Nina.

Bing Liu, director and skateboarder, has gotten very close to crossing a line documentary filmmakers sometimes are tempted to cross, that is, putting on the screen things that can come back and damage the subjects later.  But it is hard to look away.  It is all so real, so dramatic, and sad.

Keire and Zack

(Be warned that if you watch this on PBS – they keep showing ads on the lower left corner of the screen, and the channel promotion never disappears from the lower right side.  They also blank out the obscenities.)

 

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Rocket Man directed by Dexter Fletcher. 2019.

This gallery contains 7 photos.

With Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley as younger versions of Elton. The movie starts with the superstar entering rehab dressed in an outlandish red costume with cape, horns, and glasses … Continue reading

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Long Shot directed by Jonathan Levine, 2019.

with Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.

poster

Does everyone really curse as much as the people in Veep?  As the people in this movie? Can a man named Fred Flarksy (Seth Rogen) who wears a cheap teal sweatshirt zipped up to his chin and a badly soiled bicycle cap realistically date someone with high class and stature and style?

Compare this

with this

Taking a page from Veep and Vice, Long Shot follows the career of Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron)  whose road to higher office hits some bumps  along the way.

Fred Flarksy (Seth Rogen) holds his own in the company of the astonishingly beautiful Charlotte whose savoir faire in the political arena contrasts with his strident belief in his own ideas and political ethics.  Theron is convincing in her role, if a tiny bit more styled for the Hollywood runway than a diplomacy jag.

The movie is of the moment with its nods to mindful breathing and mini naps.  What a relief to watch two people puzzle out their affection for each other — and remain loyal to each other as well  as their political principles.

Since Charlotte is an advocate for the environment, part of the plot is about her wrangling an international treaty that protects bees, seas and trees, and how each of these ideas is threatened  by nefarious outsiders with money and influence.

The villain of the piece is a press mogul (think Rupert Murdoch) whose purchase of Fred’s paper impels him to quit his job in protest.  His joblessness leads to Charlotte hiring him as a “punch up” writer for her speeches, giving her more humor, and ability to connect with her audience.  Several sidekicks in the forms of handlers and bodyguards contribute to the humor.  Fred’s friendship with the one person he can call when he is feeling sad adds gravitas to the movie.

There are many funny lines but Seth’s speech writing does not provide them.    I think my favorite bits come from a tutorial for Charlotte on how to wave more charmingly.

O’Shea Jackson, who plays Fred’s best friend, with his hand on his heart. On either side of him, Charlotte’s handler and bodyguard

The movie seems to be about having the courage of your convictions even when you risk losing something important.  I did not buy the fairy tale ending when Charlotte gave up trying to play the game and won anyway.  But isn’t it nice to think so?

 

 

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Biggest Little Farm directed by John Chester

The filmmaker explores what it takes to have a diversified farm with fruit trees, sheep, pigs, ducks, and chickens, in an area of California just north of Los Angeles which is undergoing a drought.  This documentary follows John and Molly Chester who were living in a crowded apartment in the city and then decided to strike off, buy a farm, and because they are ignorant of farming, hire a consultant who becomes their guru. The tone is at turns reverent, resentful, sad, and wistful about the consultant.  The open questioning and admitting of ignorance about their undertaking made me question John and Holly’s intelligence. What else it took to establish the farm besides the idealism of creating a truly diverse farm using the old methods of natural fertilizer, pests control, and soil development are left unexplored.

The Chesters aim to have their farm reclaim land lost to monoculture.  Farming is hard, and full of natural enemies (coyotes, starlings, gophers, aphids) As the couple learn and observe over several years, they put their enemies to use.  The coyotes kill the gophers which are destroying their ground cover which is keeping the soil fertile for the fruit trees. Their ducks eat the snails that are damaging the trees.

Photography is always beautiful, perhaps too beautiful: how did they get those shots of the hummingbird at her nest?  The filmmaker’s original career as a nature photographer helps.

But I had so many questions:  How did they get the money to start the farm?  Why wasn’t there more discussion of the business of farming?  Did the ladybugs just arrive to feast on the aphids or did they buy hordes of them?  At first the story begins with the couple not having any money to buy the farm, then there were investors.  Is investors a euphemism for a rich uncle? Who really owned the farm?   Why did they call it Biggest Little Farm?  Is 200 acres a little farm?  Were their employees really that happy?  I was dying to hear from someone besides the filmmaker.  It was way too one sided.  A farm takes lots of people to make it work, and though a few people were singled out as helping, I don’t think enough credit was given to the many people who worked there.

Another problem I had was the cloying tone, beginning with the music, extending to the dog Todd who was inserted with his weepy blue eyes often and did not come across  for me I think the way it was intended.  I hated it when they said we had a baby, referring to the dog.

The movie is hopeful in that it demonstrates how the earth can be reclaimed with the right strategy and tons of work, but at times it was preachy with its endless voiceover.  Chester is the narrator and it is his story, so it is warranted, but I grew tired of the wordiness.

As someone who works a little piece of land with rather thin soil, I loved watching the transformation of the dirt from sandy dust to rich loamy earth that could grow anything.  But never mentioning money in a movie about what looks like an expensive risky enterprise seems disingenuous.  My favorite character:  Emma, the big fat sow.  She had real presence, and when she took sick, that was the one time I worried.    Emma just did her job of being a sow, and did not take on any other pretentious meaning.

 

 

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