Bombshell directed by Jay Roach, 2019.

With Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Kate MacKinnon, John Lithgow.

The poster demonstrates what the movie is about. Fox News hires blonds based on their looks, intelligence a bonus, but shapely legs required.  Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, one of the trio in the poster, and the movie begins as she addresses the audience directly, guiding us through the newsroom, introducing us to the men and women who make up the staff, what the staff do, and how the power is or is not shared.

Women are called into see Roger Ailes,  the executive in charge of the Fox News Network, and are asked to give a spin.  TV is a visual medium he explains.  You have to look good to be on the air.  The woman we see this happen to is Kayla, played by Margo Robbie, and is a composite of other young women (are any not blonde? I saw a few lesser stars in there with dark hair) in her place, showing off her gams for the boss.

The story takes us through the three women’s professional lives being upended by sexism and the threat of losing status if one did not tolerate the harassment.  Megyn Kelly has the most power, since she has the most firmly entrenched show, and is relied on by Ailes to provide the Fox point of view in politics.  Gretchen Carlson is humiliated by being delegated to a non-prime time slot, a demotion she is acutely aware of caused by her calling out the company for sexism.

Kelly’s assistant is pregnant when the movie begins, and works hard throughout those days before and after giving birth

Carlson eventually sues Ailes  and indirectly asks her colleagues  to bolster her position, and call out the man who debases women.  Eventually more women come to her aid, and the settlement of the lawsuit has a nondisclosure clause which gets Carlson to shut up, for a time.

Nicole Kidman wears her blond wig gingerly, almost daring it to fall off it hangs so loosely.  All the appearances are extreme, especially the false eyelashes, which lend a note of grotesque exaggeration to the very organs that enable the women to do their job as reporters.

It is hard to feel completely sympathetic for these women.  I can’t tell if it is because the movie is directed by a man, who is not at fault for making the movie, or if it is because the women portrayed are largely responsible for selling the Fox brand, which is toxic.  I just wonder what it would have been like if a woman had directed it.  Would there be quite so much attention to the physical appearance, the costumes, as there is here?  There are some good contextual scenes with Kelly’s assistant, a woman who begins the movie pregnant, continues to work up until she goes into labor, and then is shown returning just a few weeks after giving birth.  The role of being a working mother is not easy, and this movie gets that.

It is hard to deny the acting chops of these three women.  Theron can just give a side-eye new meaning, Kidman knows how to show duplicity at all times.  And Robbie’s job of having an affair with another woman is most subtle in what is really at stake when you work in a paternalistic environment such as Fox News.  There is little freedom.  Just a company line.  Kate MacKinnon’s explanation of why her character continues to work at Fox is very touching.  Once other networks learn that she works for Fox, they don’t want to hire her.

That will not be the case with these actresses, including MacKinnon.  They are all excellent.

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Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig, 2019.

with Saiorse Ronan, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet.

A feminist version of the classic 19th century story of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War.

It’s not as if Louisa May Alcott was not a bit of a feminist herself, but this adaptation declines to have a straightforward romantic ending for all four girls, instead reserving the happy ending for the writer by having her book published and retaining her copyright for what proved to be a very lucrative property.

Of the many Hollywood adaptations of the book,  Katherine Hepburn captured the spirit of the heroine, and Winona Ryder the moodiness, but Saiorse Ronan embodies the nature of the writer.

Katherine Hepburn and Joan Bennett

Winona Ryder and Christian Bale

Saiorse Ronan with Timothee Chalamet

Greta Gerwig has chosen a picture perfect cast: Laura Dern looks like the mother of these four beauties.  Meryl Streep sneers at just the right moments to indicate her disdain for the spendthrift March family.  She also looks related to Laura Dern.  Amy (Florence Pugh) is especially adept at coveting the older sisters’ privileges and wanting to succeed in a more society-oriented (shallow?) way than her writer sister, though she does have ambitions to be a great artist.

The beginning of the movie is hyper-kinetic with people bounding across sets, dancing, jumping, hurling themselves around.  It takes a bit for the rhythm to settle down, but the energy of the girls matches any boys’.

Once we are introduced to a few of the male characters, including the Lawrence family, especially the grandfather played by Chris Cooper and his grandson, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), dialogue and character development enrich each scene.  Chris Cooper should get a lifetime achievement award for adding depth and emotional resonance to every movie he performs in.  His tender discretion in bestowing the piano that once belonged to his daughter who has since died breaks your heart.  I dare you not to cry over the relationship between old man Lawrence and young Beth.

The movie is of the moment, with a meta ending, the story of the story coming through.  The final scenes capture the magic of a book transformed from a bunch of ideas in someone’s head to words engraved on plates, which are inked, and printed, and collected in signatures, and sewn into bindings.  It is a marvelous thing, a book, and this one has launched another fine movie.

Little Women in the 1990s was directed by an underrated director, Gillian Armstrong, with a strong cast.  Cukor’s effort in the 1930s was no slouch.  But somehow this movie right now is especially welcome, and Saiorse Ronan is positively radiant in every scene.

The fictional character of Jo March inspires young women to not be belittled as little women, but to keep on writing exactly what they want, with ambition as big as the sky.  Long live Jo March!

 

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The Two Popes directed by Fernando Meirelles, 2019.

With Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, 2019

For the first time in 700 years, a pope resigned rather than serve his full term until death.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, had been elected after three rounds of voting, and made clear his positions on matters of the moment;  he wanted to preserve the old ways.  Homosexuality was wrong.  Women had no role in the church (except as nuns). The church’s responsibility was spiritual, not political.  Such conservative dictums alienated large numbers of Catholics, who fell by the wayside.

Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI

The real Ratzinger

In the meantime, the Argentinian cardinal who came a distant second in the voting in 2005, returned to his parish in Buenos Aires, and lived as a humble person, cooking his own meals, driving his own car.  He was a modest, down to earth kind of guy.

After seven or eight years of scandals of priests abusing children and let off scot free, followed by a disgrace at the Vatican with an administrator making off with money,  Pope Benedict had had enough.  He knew he was out of his league.  He summoned the Argentinian, and asked him to perform confession.

The Two Popes is beautifully filmed, with magisterial shots of the Vatican, and brisk editing of the ritual of election, as cardinals in their scarlet robes attend to the business at hand.  Even the clicking of pens as the men prepare to write the name of the next pope has dramatic weight.  Both actors give their roles the dignity and spiritual depth deserving of their characters.  The backstory to Pope Francis, his youth in Argentina, his work with dissidents during the Dirty War, his feelings of guilt over two Jesuits imprisoned during his leadership, seems patched together, and stands in contrast to the lack of the same for Pope Benedict.   We only hear one stranger mention that Benedict lived as a Nazi in Germany during Hitler’s rule.  Benedict is sure of himself at all times, even when he knows he has lost the ability to govern the church as it now stands.

Of course Pope Francis is the more likable man, with his love of football, his knowledge of pop music.  Benedict is relegated to his passion for classical piano, his remove from the commoners, his wearing the red shoes, his intellectual rigor.  You can tell a lot about a person by the shoes that he wears.

More could have been made of the crises around child abuse.  One mention must stand in for the disastrous state Catholic hierarchies find themselves in. Crisp dialogue moves the story along and demonstrates the different style each man possesses. The movie focuses on the relationship between the two men, their conflicting view points, and in the end, deep abiding respect for each other as a friendship forms.

Pizza and fanta

 

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller, 2019.

With Tom Hanks, Mathew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper.

Fathers and sons butt heads often in life. But what happens in the movie is more complicated than that. Jerry, an older man with a drinking problem, was negligent to his son.   The son is a journalist, Lloyd Vogel, assigned to write a short profile of Fred Rogers, the television host, and instead of performing his duty as the editor described it, he takes a long detour down his family’s sad history, and in the process, ends up having Rogers perform for him a greater service, almost as an expert shrink.

Chris Cooper plays Jerry Vogel, Lloyd’s (Matthew Rhys) father

As Vogel is known for his belligerent reporting style, (he turns up for his interview with Rogers with a black eye), this is not a match made in heaven.  Vogel dislikes it when Rogers questions him, especially with his puppet Daniel Tiger in attendance.  Who is giving this interview anyway?

But as we get more closely acquainted with the cast, including Lloyd’s rather saintly wife, the movie turns out to be about redemption.

The production imitates the Mr. Rogers’ sets, with planes taking off as little toys over a miniature city with exaggerated models of skyscrapers filling in for New York.

In these days of fascistic leaders and demagogues, some of us yearn for Mr. Rogers to return us to an honorable, compassionate code of conduct.  Watching the movie, I thought how reassuring he was, but simple. His daily habit of doing three things: swimming, reading scripture, and praying for individuals, is compelling. At one point,  Rogers and Vogel eat together in a Chinese restaurant, and Rogers asks for a moment of silence to remember the people who loved Vogel into being.  The nearby tables honor the request as well, and you could almost hear them thinking to themselves about the people in their lives who had loved them.

Matthew Rhys has the most challenging role as the writer struggling to come to terms with his life.  His loving wife played by Susan Kelechi Watson must cope with the many twists and turns his complicated family takes him. Chris Cooper plays the roue dad with puffy eyes, a bad haircut, and a temptation to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  He is marvelous. Tom Hanks’ performance shows restraint, channeling his character’s inner goodness with quiet questions.  I wish there were more of Christine Lahti, as Lloyd’s editor, but she makes the most of what she has to work with.

Marielle Heller is a director worth following.  Her earlier movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me, showed her ability to plumb the emotional depths of complicated people.  Or is it just that she is fascinated by curmudgeons?  It would have been easy to have Hanks as Rogers upstage everyone, dominate the narrative.  But that does not happen.   The movie keeps its focus on Lloyd as he sorts out his own life and troubles.

 

 

 

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63 Up, directed by Michael Apted, 2019.

There are so many characters, twelve in all, that as their lives lengthen in seven year increments, from seven years old until 63, they become more complex, it is hard to hang on to each individual’s details.  Quick cross cut editing makes it difficult as well.  Even with some of the original seven year olds dropping out, I had difficulty following the thread in such quick succession.  Most of the time it worked, with the first subject, Tony, and the last subject, Hughes, being the most vivid and memorable.

Tony, who started out wanting to be a jockey, and ended up driving a taxi, encompasses not only his personal history, but of  England, its economy, and the way things have worked out for people after the last crash.  How resilient so many of the profiled people are, enduring divorce, illness, the loss of spouses, the disruptions of the gig economy.  Tony is a survivor with an upbeat attitude and a supportive wife.

Everyone is not so lucky.  Hughes seems to suffer from mental illness, and has a lost look that cannot be denied, even as he runs for office, and leads a congregation as a lay minister.  He is trying to hang on, but the effort shows.

The women are treated differently, and Jackie complains outright to Apted about it.  This exchange is one of the best in the movie, because it points out conflicts that can arise in documentary filmmaking, how the filmmaker does not always treat his subjects fairly, and when he doesn’t, as in the rightful complaints of Jackie, it colors the rest of the picture.  Why are the men asked different questions than the women?  Why are women relegated to family and getting married?

But soon we are on to the next male character. Symon and Paul both suffered together in an orphanage. John, the successful lawyer, whose Bulgarian heritage he prizes, gives himself over to years of service to the country.

Symon is the only nonwhite character in the movie

Apted is aging along with the rest of his subjects.  It seems unlikely that the series can continue much farther.  He has provided a valuable series of portraits — across a class spectrum — as they develop from children into adults and then age.  The films began in 1964, inspired by the Jesuit motto “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”   I am not sure that this statement rings true, mostly because of the gender specific ring to it.  Men are only half of the human race. It is not that there is a lack of breadth in characters, but the paucity of women, and the lack of diversity shows painfully this time around.  Much as I have enjoyed the series over time, I am ready to say farewell.

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Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, 2019.

with Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer

A family gathers to celebrate the 85th birthday of their patriarch, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful mystery novelist. Among the guests are his daughter, Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Linda’s husband, Richard (Don Johnson), who run a real estate company.  Harlan’s grandson, Ransom (Chris Evans), is not gainfully employed but seems very comfortable.  Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing house that Harlan began to retain control over his highly profitable mysteries.  Various grandchildren and in laws including his dead son’s widow, Joni (Toni Collette), are also there.  Afterward, the guest of honor retires to his room where his faithful nurse, Marta, plays a game of go with him, and then administers his medicine.  When next we see Harlan, he is in bed, his throat slit, dead.

I wish that I could have seen the image of the dead man more clearly, but the extremely muddy photography made it difficult. The darkness in the rooms hint at a B movie, or perhaps the cinematography is supposed to be gothic and grotesque.  Yes, the manor house has narrow high windows that would not provide daylight, but as a result the actors’ faces look more ghastly than ghostly.

The movie excels in acting, casting, and clever plot twists that keep the audience on the edge of their seats.   Daniel Craig’s labored Southern accent eases up as the movie goes along.  Besides the police called in to confirm the death as a suicide, –excellent work done here by Lakeith Stanfield — who plays the main police detective on the case– an unknown client has hired Benoit Blanc (Craig) to assist in the investigation.

Suspicion of foul play abounds.  There are many red herrings.  Each member of the family has less winning qualities than the next.  But the saintly Marta, who administers to the victim, reveals little by little what actually happened after that game of go.  De Armas has a crucial role, and she delivers.

The sets, besides taking place in the mansion occupied by the rich deceased author, constantly focus on a circle of knives as a backdrop for many scenes of interrogation.   This attention to the murder weapon seems a bit forced, a bit of a nod to the game and movie “Clue.”

The game is afoot, as Sherlock would say, delectably so most of the time.  The costumes and makeup and photography of the principals, except for Craig and de Armas, are grotesque, accentuating their inner and outer ugliness.  But how satisfying to have Jamie Lee Curtis back on the screen.  She handles her role with exceptional skill.

Michael Shannon is not given the lines to do so, nor Toni Collette, though she accepts her fate with grace.  Christopher Plummer thankfully comes back from the dead in flashbacks to deliver his lines with customary perfection.

As a murder story, this is an exceptionally satisfying tale.  There are just a few production details that got on my nerves.

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Ford v Ferrari, directed by James Mangold, 2019.

This movie treats a conflict between the company goal and the sportsman’s ideal, between competition between groups and excellence of individuals.  How does a man of action stay true to himself when he is beholden to a huge corporate entity?  The race car drivers, Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby are completely dedicated to making a normally medium good Ford car become a world class race car.

In the meantime, there are families and companies to run.

Acting by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, not to mention Caitronia Balfe who plays Miles’ wife, Mollie, pitch you right in there with them. It can’t have been easy to live with a man whose auto shop is one day declared bankrupt, and locked up shut because the bills haven’t been paid.  The reason the bills haven’t been paid:  the man who bought the car didn’t know how to drive it so he refused to pay for it.

Miles’ wife, Mollie, pulls up a chair to watch one of the typical fights Ken and Carroll have with each other.

Ken Miles (Christian Bale) plays a major role.  A Northern Englishman who fought in World War II returned to England, and then migrated to the States, has become an expert in cars, especially cars that go fast.  He is a brilliant driver.  He knows when to slow down, when to speed up so that the car is at its best.  As a result, he is a favorite with those who race in professional races.    Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a man whose days of racing are over due to a bad heart, leans on Miles to take his place behind the wheel.

Bale as usual transforms himself to play the part

Miles is a family man, but one who can get lost in the quest for a perfect race.  He wants to drive the LeMans when the time comes, but due to his disdain for the corporate suits who control events, has a hard time hanging on to his position.  A request Ford makes of him is almost too much to bear, but Miles is a canny man, and as it turns out, a gentleman.

Many of the more touching scenes are with Miles and his son who is completely dedicated to his father’s career.

The title of the movie is how the whole thing began: as a need for Ford to design a sexy car, a car at least as attractive as the Ferrari, something appealing that will boost sales.  Ferrari is used to winning races, and being coveted by those who love cars, compared to Ford which can run an efficient factory, but doesn’t have much savvy about style. The story of how Ford tried to buy Ferrari but did not succeed is folded into the screenplay.

A website I often visit to check movies based on history is History vs Hollywood and I was gratified to find that the movie was basically true to the actual facts.  Each time another race concluded, or Shelby experienced a potentially career threatening event, I wanted to know, did that actually happen?  So many movies are based on real people, one of the pleasures of watching is having your curiosity piqued and learning about a subject you had no idea you could get interested in.  For me, that is cars.  I had no idea I could get excited while watching a set of brakes be completely replaced mid-race. But dear reader, I was.

One of the unsung heroes of the story is the engineer Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon) who actually makes happen the ideas the drivers have for improving the performance of each car.  Thanks to crisp editing and excellent photography as well as a well structured screenplay, the movie can be counted on for a  smooth ride.

Ray McKinnon

 

 

 

 

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