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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

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we finally get the movie with both older Luke and Leia. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher get to do what Harrison Ford did in The Force Awakens: They spend a little more time (in the case of Hamill, a lot more time) in their iconic roles.

Both stars shine as they play in the Star Wars sandbox 40 years after the original’s release. When this film focuses on the saga of Luke and Rey, it is nothing short of epic. When the camera is on the late Carrie Fisher—who gets more quality screen time than she did with her glorified cameo in Force Awakens—it’s heartwarming and, yes, sad. (The Leia stuff gets a little kooky at times, but I’m trying to make this a spoiler-free zone.)

When writer-director Rian Johnson takes the action to the characters of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and a new character named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the film falters. Poe, so engaging in Force Awakens, seems underdeveloped here. While the Resistance fights an oddly prolonged and bizarre space battle against the First Order, Poe just whines a lot—the point where you’re actually happy when Leia smacks him across the head.

The film picks up where The Force Awakens left off, more or less, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke in a stare-down: Rey is looking for tutelage, but Luke wants nothing to do with that Jedi stuff anymore, and desires to be left alone with his alien milk. While on the island, Rey starts having some sort of psychic Force conversations with Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo (Adam Driver). Will Luke train Rey? Will Rey find out who her parents are? Will Adam Driver engage in his obligatory partial nudity in this film? I’m not telling.

What I will tell you is that there’s too much going on in The Last Jedi, and a lot of it feels like filler. Besides that stalled-out space battle, there’s a clunky sequence in a casino that goes on far too long; a lot of distracting cameos; and new characters inhabited by Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro who bring little to the proceedings.

Am I overthinking this? Yeah, I am—but I’m a dude who has spent the last 40 years worshiping Star Wars. Anything you put onscreen that’s a Star Wars production is going to have me (admittedly, a loser) breaking down that shit. I’m saying that some of this movie seems a little half-baked, and also overstuffed. If there’s any movie I want to be more than 2 1/2 hours long, it’s a Star Wars movie—but at that length, it needs to be a really good Star Wars movie, not a so-so one. The Last Jedi is so-so.

I’m of two minds when it comes to The Last Jedi. It’s part Best Star Wars Ever (Luke, Leia, Rey, Ben Solo) and part Worst Star Wars Ever (Poe, Finn, the girl with the flip hair, and just about any time Domhnall Gleeson speaks). I’m recommending it for the Luke and Leia goodness, Daisy Ridley’s continued greatness as Rey, and inspired moments of fun and humor. But, man oh man, it nearly goes into “Jar Jar” territory a little too often for my tastes.

Johnson has been given a new Star Wars trilogy on which to work—a saga supposedly away from the Skywalkers. I’m hoping the guy gives us something a little more balanced. He’s made great movies (Brick, Looper) and crap movies (The Brothers Bloom) in the past. The Last Jedi falls somewhere in between.

So, as Yoda would say: A great Star Wars, this is not. Like it just fine, I did, but there is a tremor of over-indulgence in the Force. Be mindful of this for future times in edit bay, you must.”

One final note: Porgs are awesome.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

In her best role since she scored an Oscar for Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon astonishes in Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to last year’s Dallas Buyers Club.

The film is based on a memoir of Cheryl Strayed, and Witherspoon plays the author, who took it upon herself to make a solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail after tragedies in her life. The film becomes not only a fine showcase for Witherspoon, but a damn fine commercial for the PCT and those REI outdoor-gear stores.

The film opens on the not-so-pleasant sight of Strayed losing a toenail in bloody fashion to a wrong-sized boot while she’s days into her trek. It then flashes back a bit to the beginning of her hike; the film takes a non-chronological approach to its plot.

As she begins her walk, Strayed remembers moments from her childhood, her marriage, and her recent relationship with her mother (Laura Dern, shining in a small role). We discover that tragedy led her to extreme promiscuity and heroin use. Her decision to hike the PCT is an attempt to get herself on the right track.

Early during her walk, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Strayed comes across a man driving a tractor (a fantastic W. Earl Brown). Vallee does a nice job of creating a palpable sense of dread, and shows just how vulnerable a solo hiker could be, especially one lacking experience. The result of Strayed’s meeting with the tractor driver is fantastic and surprising storytelling.

The characters Strayed meets along the way are mostly positive, although a couple of male hikers put a dent in the goodness of the human race. A quick meeting with a man writing about hobos provides the film’s funniest moment.

While Wild is an uplifting film about redemption and Strayed’s personal triumphs, the movie also works as an authentic and informative film about the art of hiking. From Strayed’s struggles with her super-huge backpack, to her over-reliance on trail tanks for water, to her stopovers at community outposts along the trail, you get a true sense of what you might experience on such an expedition. It also teaches you that buying your hiking boots at REI would be a smart move.

With a few exceptions (such as her excellent turn in last year’s Mud), Witherspoon has been showing up in quite a few mediocre-to-lousy films (including this year’s Devil’s Knot). Before her Oscar glory and crap like Legally Blonde, Witherspoon was a reliable, off-the-beaten-track actress with projects like Freeway and Election. Wild represents the sort of role that got her a stellar reputation early in her career: She’s raw, edgy and real; there’s not a false note in her performance. You get a true sense she put herself through some physical hell for the role. It’s not a “showy” role, but rather one that allows her to be understated and stripped-down.

Dern breaks hearts as the eternally optimistic mom who attends college at the same time as her daughter and is thrown a nasty curveball—one that very much contributes to Strayed’s life missteps. Thomas Sadoski, as Strayed’s husband, Paul, captures the essence of a person very much in love and struggling with his wife’s actions. He remains civil in the most unpleasant and challenging of circumstances.

Vallée and company make a great-looking movie, covering all the terrains Strayed must’ve experienced on her hike, from desert to the snowy Sierras. He complements the meditative movie with beautiful choices for his soundtrack, including Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” and a stunning cover of the overlooked R.E.M. track “Walk Unafraid.” Many of the tracks sound as if they are being played on loudspeakers along the trail, with their musical strains gently bouncing off the trees and echoing through the forests.

Witherspoon is a lock for an Oscar nomination; she already received a nod from the Golden Globes. She deserves the accolades. Hopefully, Wild (and her small role in this year’s Inherent Vice) are indicative of more adventurous choices in her future.

Wild is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

I will not lie: Sometimes, I walk into a movie theater generally uninterested in what a movie might be offering, perhaps due to weak trailers or press that failed to generate excitement. I walked into The Fault in Our Stars feeling that way, fearing I was in for a sap-fest.

Boy, was I wrong.

Shailene Woodley is downright incredible as Hazel, a 16-year-old struggling with thyroid cancer. After being sent to a support group by her mother (Laura Dern … God, I love her), she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, who is so charming it’s almost disgusting), a basketball player who lost his leg to cancer—but he sure as hell hasn’t lost his lust for life. The two hit it off, and the result is the best teen romance since The Spectacular Now, which also starred Woodley.

The film handles its subject matter with enough grace for a thousand movies. When Gus, Hazel and her mom travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author (Willem Dafoe, who is on freaking fire), the resulting meeting stands as one of the best scenes of 2014.

Much praise goes to director Josh Boone for making a supremely entertaining film, and to author John Green, who wrote the 2012 novel on which the film is based. You could call this a tearjerker, but that seems a little insulting: There’s nothing manipulative about Boone’s direction, or the performances by Woodley, Elgort, Dern, Nat Wolff and the rest of the cast. They all won me over in a big way.

The Fault in Our Stars is playing at Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615).

Published in Reviews