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Tue04072020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

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

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

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

Then … well, the lawyers get involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Louis C.K., the Radiohead of standup comics, has dropped yet another surprise on his fans: On Saturday, Jan. 30, I—having been the purchaser of many C.K. nuggets before— received an e-mail from his website stating there was something new to watch, a show called Horace and Pete.

Well, shit. I buy anything this guy turns out—and I mean anything. I went to the website, digitally plopped down my $5, and set about watching his new experiment.

Horace and Pete, as it turns out, is a Web series staged not unlike an off-Broadway play. There are a couple of sets, and a bunch of actors seemingly going at it without the benefit of a lot of takes. There’s no studio audience, and no laugh track. It’s bare-bones—and it’s very good.

C.K. writes, directs and stars as Horace, owner of a family bar alongside brother Pete (an often-unhinged Steve Buscemi). Horace has a younger girlfriend, Rachel (Rebecca Hall), and full-grown daughter, Alice (Aidy Bryant), who has a tendency to return his calls with unwanted texts. Uncle Pete (Alan Alda) mans the bar with an intolerant and racist fist.

Jessica Lange—yes, the Jessica Lange—co-stars as a barfly, while the likes of Steven Wright, Nick DiPaolo and Edie Falco round out the stellar cast. Alda makes the most memorable impression, partly because he delivers the most-shocking lines. He has a remark about pedophilia that looks like it caught C.K. off-guard.

There’s a definite improvisational feel to much of this. Some lines get flubbed, and there are a few signs that the performers didn’t have a lot of time to get their lines down. That’s probably true, because the show feels as if it was taped just a few days ago; for example, there are remarks about Trump in Iowa.

Throw in a theme song by a little guy named Paul Simon, and you have a pretty impressive production. There are signs that this isn’t a one-time thing, which is good to know.

If you are wondering whether or not it’s worth $5 … well, it’s 67 minutes long, and it has Louis C.K. and Jessica Lange in it. Enough said.

Louis C.K. has put his FX series on hold in favor of other projects, this being one of them. May Horace and Pete serve drinks at their shitty bar for a long time to come.

Horace and Pete is available for download ($5) at Louisck.net.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Steven Spielberg continues a mini-slump with another good-looking yet terminally boring historical drama.

After the middling Lincoln comes the sleepy Bridge of Spies. This is Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, and their first since 2004’s terrible The Terminal. It doesn’t represent a return to the glory of Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan.

This film certainly had a lot going for it. It’s Spielberg’s take on spying during the Cold War in the 1960s, which sounds like it should be exciting—and it’s a collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan chipped in on the screenplay, which usually means good things are afoot.

I wish Joel and Ethan had directed it as well; perhaps then the film would’ve had more edge and been less cutesy, with its emotions a little less obvious and drippy. Also, a discernible pulse for the majority of the running time would’ve been nice.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a U.S. tax attorney who lands the unenviable task of representing alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). While Donovan’s law firm and the courts see the whole thing as an open-and-shut case, Donovan makes it known that his intentions are to represent Abel to the full extent of the law. Cue the grouchy judge and perplexed bosses—and you know one of them is going to be played by Alan Alda.

In a parallel story, some pilots join the CIA in a new spying program with U-2 planes. One of those planes gets shot out of the sky at 70,000 feet, giving the Russians their own spy prisoner in Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). With the erection of the Berlin Wall, yet another “spy” is captured when Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student who picked a crappy time to study in Berlin, is apprehended by the East Germans.

Those captured American stories crisscross with Abel’s story as Donovan winds up overseas trying to negotiate prisoner exchanges.

Hanks is characteristically good in the central role. The film is at its best when Donovan is trudging through the streets of Berlin, trying to find the Russian embassy and evading thugs who are trying to steal his fancy coat. Hanks instills these moments with some good humor. It’s not one of his greatest performances, but it’s a solid one.

While the film bores me, but there is a sequence that pops with great intensity and displays Spielberg hitting all of his marks: When the Powers’ plane is shot down, the sequence leading up to him finally getting his parachute open is terrific. It feels like it should’ve been in another movie—perhaps one in which somebody turns a light on during the interior scenes.

Spielberg has directed only a few major bombs (1941, The Terminal, Hook), with a couple of films that were OK (Amistad, Always) and a boatload of classics. His last two movies don’t fall into any of those categories: Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are mediocre films that could’ve been great.

Spielberg needs to have fun in the fantasy sandbox again. Whether it’s the long-rumored fifth Indiana Jones, or some sort of sci-fi adventure, I want his next movie to be less about period haircuts and neckties, and more about storylines with energy. He’s getting hung up on films in which characters blather on and on in dark courtrooms and back offices. It’s tiresome and beneath him.

Many years ago, I would defend Spielberg films to people who thought he overdid it on the sentimentality. Many moments in Bridge of Spies had me remembering those arguments, because the moments dripped with sap. If somebody were to tell me today that Spielberg is overdoing it with the sentimentality, I’d raise my glass in agreement, then quietly shed a tear, because one of my favorite directors gone (temporarily, I hope) astray.

Bridge of Spies is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews