Tully

Image result for mackenzie davis sexy

Tully

****

 

When my first marriage was coming to an end, I made a list of the worst-case scenarios that could happen in order to keep things in perspective.

Here’s what I thought were the bottom five most terrible things that could happen to me:

  1. Die
  2. Get Divorced
  3. Get severely injured in an accident so I can no longer walk or be active.
  4. Have kids
  5. Get tortured

You know that feeling when you look at the clock on your computer at work and discover that you still have three long hours to go before quitting time? That’s how parenthood sounds to me. Except instead of three hours, you have 25 years to go before you get to stop working. 25 years during which you are often tired and always worried about money.

“Tully” is a rare film that explores parenthood in terms that make sense to me: as an existential life crisis.

Charlize Theron is magnificent as a 40 year old mom named Marlo.

In her 20s, Marlo was a cool Brooklynite. She was a bohemian bisexual libertine. She was the kind of person who makes dark clever quips during a conversation and doesn’t care that most people aren’t quick enough to get her jokes.

Now Marlo is a suburban mom. When we meet her, she is about to give birth to her third child, and it is no secret that it was an accidental pregnancy.

After the new baby is born, director Jason Reitman gives us a frighteningly realistic montage of Marlo’s life. From her perspective, existence has become an endless, meaningless series of diaper changes, loud rides to school, and late-night breast pumping while watching bad reality TV.

Marlo is frazzled and starting to lose her mind. Then Tully shows up.

Tully is the Night Nanny that they hired to take care of the new baby so that Marlo can relax for a few hours and get some sleep.

But young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) ends up being much more than that. She also sees it as her mission help Marlo gain a new perspective on motherhood, self-esteem, and happiness. Tully is Mary Poppins and Dr. Ruth mixed together in one extremely good-looking package.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) has written her masterpiece. “Tully” is a deep, empathetic character study of a smart woman on the edge of sanity. This is what all chick flicks would be like if I ran Hollywood.

 

“Tully” is a perfect film that reminds us that life changes in ways that you never expect.

I was certainly wrong about my worst-case scenario list when I was getting divorced. Divorce is much more wonderful than death.

Maybe I am wrong about the first and second items on my list, too. Having kids is probably the very worst thing that could happen to me. Torture might be tolerable if it doesn’t go on for too long, right?

Advertisements

Chappaquiddick

Image result for ted kennedy neck brace

Chappaquiddick

****

 

I am sick and tired of political scandals.

In my ideal world, people would only read about scandals in National Enquirer. Scandals wouldn’t be seen on the news. They wouldn’t be viewed as news at all; they would be guilty pleasure bathroom reading material.

In our world, scandals aren’t just on the news – they are the news. If you turn on CNN, there is virtually no chance that you’ll hear an informative conversation about underemployment, the urgent need to break up Amazon.com, the environmental benefits of tariffs and reduced international trade, or the prison-industrial complex. You will probably become a Stormy Daniels expert, though.

When you do a good job at work, your boss doesn’t say: “That doesn’t count because I read you were a jerk to your husband last night.” That makes no sense. But that’s what politicians have to deal with when people mistake scandals for relevant news.

Picture it: it’s 2021. President Elizabeth Warren successfully brought every soldier back to the United States. President Warren just shook hands with Putin and both leaders agreed to shut down our nuclear submarine programs and let the subs sink harmlessly to the bottom of the ocean.

I will rapturously applaud President Warren. If a scandal comes out that she is a terrible person behind closed doors, I will not care. There is nothing she could do or say or tweet that would make me dislike her as a leader. Her personal flaws and sins can not change the fact that she brought us world peace.

I suppose there’s limits, though, right?

There has to be a threshold where a politician’s personal evil-doing is so ghastly that you can’t vote for him in good conscience. The outstanding film “Chappaquiddick” explores this threshold.

The story begins on an appropriately sorrowful note. On a lovely summer evening in 1969, senator Ted Kennedy got drunk with a young lady who was not his wife and flipped his car over into the water. Somehow, Kennedy escaped. His passenger did not.

This is not so good. What makes this accident go from sad to horrible is that Senator Kennedy checked into a posh hotel and didn’t call the cops until the next morning. Meanwhile, poor Mary Jo Kopechne slowly suffocated as she franticly breathed the remaining oxygen that was inside the car.

The Senator (Jason Clarke) isn’t particularly troubled about the woman he just killed. He isn’t even scared that he will have to go to prison, even though he definitely would have served time if he had been poor or non-white. Ted is concerned that he – the last surviving Kennedy bother – has just spoiled his chance to become President.

Family patriarch Joe Kennedy assembles an absurdly accomplished team of great minds (including Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara) to come up with a damage-control plan to save Ted Kennedy’s career. And they do a darn good job.

The best and brightest minds of the Democratic party should have been solving America’s problems; instead they were working as scandal spin doctors. The scenario is darkly funny, and director John Curren mines the situation for a lot of laughs.

The comedy reaches a surprising crescendo when Senator Kennedy dons a fake neck brace at Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral to try to gain sympathy.

Don’t worry, Democrat readers: This isn’t an anti-Kennedy hatchet job. “Chappaquiddick” is an admirably even-handed film. Curren really does make us feel for Ted Kennedy. He never encourages us to judge the Senator.

The film definitely doesn’t encourage us to judge the voters of Massachusetts, who largely looked past the scandal and reelected Senator Kennedy seven more times.

There is absolutely no defense for what Ted Kennedy did on that terrible summer night in 1969. It is one of the worst personal scandals in US history. But the scandal does not diminish Kennedy’s legislative achievements. They have nothing to do with each other.

Next time a political scandal comes on your TV, please consider that you are watching meaningless tabloid trash, definitely not the news.

The Death of Stalin

Image result for steve buscemi as nikita khrushchev

The Death of Stalin

****

 

Most everyone knows that the Soviet Union was a nightmarish place to live.

I’m not sure people know exactly why, though.

I don’t have enough room here to list all the atrocities, but the forced collectivization of agriculture was one of the worst.

In 1929, the Soviet Politburo announced the mass collectivization of agriculture. Successful capitalist peasants – labeled Kulaks – were not invited to join. The Kulaks were marched off to work camps or killed.

For the remaining peasants, collectivization was nearly as bad. With the best farmers gone, the large State farms were run by city bureaucrats. The bureaucrats knew a lot about Das Kapital but nothing about das wheat.

Inevitably, grain production plummeted. Farmers were still expected to ship the same amount of food to the city party leaders, though, and the USSR continued to export grain to fund its industrialization projects.

The farmers themselves received a smaller share of a shrinking bounty. The communists’ perverse experiment led to a man-made famine that killed 5 to 7 million peasants.

The hardest thing for us to believe about this horror story is that the architects of this mass murder were regular human beings like us. Soviet leaders were just people – with feelings and families and fears. And funny bones.

“The Death of Stalin” is a delightful, charming, audacious comedy about a few funny weeks in Soviet Russia.

It is 1953 and fearsome dictator Joseph Stalin just had a massive stroke. Nobody knows for sure how sick he is because all of the best doctors have been sent to the Gulag. But the leading members of the Politburo have already begun to jockey for position in the new government. And every human weakness and frailty is on display.

Ruthless Beria is letting political prisoners free with hopes of currying favor with the people (even though he’s the one who put them in prison to begin with).

Halfwit Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) has been named interim leader. One minute he’s drunk with his new power and ordering people around; the next minute he looks like a deer in headlights because he’s overwhelmed by the job.

Poor Molotov (Michael Palin) is too traumatized by the madness of the Stalin era to move on. It’s darkly funny to hear Molotov earnestly condemn his wife as a traitor even though he has no clue why Stalin arrested her.

There is definitely no hero to this story. But the closest thing we’ve got is Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev. He’s the only one who fully understands what is going on. This is not a battle of communist vs. capitalist or good vs. evil. Politics is about building a coalition by any means necessary. It’s fun to watch a perpetually frazzled Khrushchev convince, cajole and bully all the idiots in the Kremlin.

Writer/director Armando Ianucci (HBO’s “Veep”) has made the most inspired comedy of the year. It combines the witty wordplay of early Woody Allen with the anarchic slapstick of The Marx Brothers.

Mark Twain theorized that “humor is tragedy plus time.” “The Death of Stalin” proves it once and for all. I love this movie. See it if you can.

The Florida Project

Image result for halley the florida project

The Florida Project

****

 

In theory, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is a saintly organization.

In a perfect world, DCF social workers would heroically swoop into a troubled home and save a desperate child from intolerable neglect and abuse.

And then that child would be swiftly moved into the warm embrace of her foster parents, who are definitely opening their home because of love rather than the monthly government stipend. The lucky foster child would immediately receive full parental care and acceptance. And also a pony.

In the real world, the Florida Department of Children of Families does sometimes do the right thing and gives abused children a new chance at life. And sometimes it just destroys families.

 

“The Florida Project” takes place at the Magic Castle: an ironically named extended-stay motel less than a mile away from Disney World.

The residents of Magic Castle pay $200 a week to stay there, but they are all living day to day. Brilliant writer/director Sean Baker gives us a documentary-style view into the lives of families who globalism has left in the dust.

21st Century Orlando is practically a 3rd World Caribbean country, with impoverished natives living off the spare change of upper middle-class tourists.

Sounds like a pretty sad movie, right? Heck no! To our six year old leading lady Moonee, every day is a celebration. The world is her playground, and every day Moonee finds a new way to beg, borrow, steal, and vandalize her way into an adventure.

Moonee has no rules, no structure, and no discipline, but she knows that she can always go home to her loving mother Halley.

Halley is a foul-mouthed, trashy green-haired girl who does not look or act old enough to have a daughter. Halley doesn’t have a job and she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends. So she has to hustle hard every week at various illegal activities to earn her rent money.

Life definitely isn’t always fun for Halley, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She has the love of her life Moonee to hang out with every night.

“The Florida Project” is a funny, charming film about a happy, loving family. Unfortunately, we the audience know what the characters don’t: the DCF is a Sword of Damocles dangling over Halley and Moonee, and every other powerless lower-class family.

Child welfare agencies would like you to believe that they are detectives who sniff out the most at-risk children. The reality is that they visit families based on calls they receive. The people visited by the DCF aren’t the worst parents; they are the parents who made enemies of their exes or their neighbors.

Sean Baker never takes the easy way out with his social argument. He does not glorify poverty and he doesn’t defend Halley’s lifestyle or behavior.

He subtly but forcefully argues that Moonee would be better off if she had a mom with an ounce of decorum, restraint, maturity, and class. She doesn’t. But Moonee does have happiness. She does have joy. She does have love. She does have a family. She does have a mom.

In theory, the Florida Department of Children and Families is an organization that saves children. In practice, the DCF sometimes takes crying daughters out of the loving arms of their mothers.

There is no easy answer to the problem of at risk children. “The Florida Project” makes a powerful case that the DCF isn’t it. Personally, I don’t trust government to ever find a good answer.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Image result for justice is a lie

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

****

“Always remember, people will hate you. But they don’t win unless you hate them back. And then you destroy yourself.”

-Richard Nixon

 

People have a funny idea about the virtue of vengeance.

If a bad guy does something to your family, you are given free reign to hate him and work to have bad things happen to him. Vengeance is considered satisfying, justified, and cool.

People know that wrath is a deadly sin and that we are supposed to love our enemies, but they don’t want to hear it. “Why is the church being such a killjoy? They are taking all the fun out of my sweet vengeance!”

But the church is right and it’s doing us a favor. When a bad guy wrongs your family, the selfish thing to do is forgive him and move on; that’s your best shot at happiness and peace. Wrath is rightly called a deadly sin because it makes life miserable for the people around you and destroys your soul.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh certainly agrees. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the perfect anti-vengeance movie.

McDonagh starts off with a classic Hollywood premise.

On one side, you’ve got the heroine: Mildred (Frances McDormand). Mildred’s daughter was murdered several months ago and she demands justice. Mildred rents out three billboards in town that explicitly call out the police for failing to find the killer.

On the other side, you’ve got the bad guy: Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is a drunken, racist, angry bully cop.

McDonagh has an easy movie on his hands, right? Just make poor Mildred look sympathetic and make Dixon look like an irredeemable villain. Heck, let’s find that killer in the final act, too, for closure, justice, and a happy ending.

No. No. No. “Three Billboards” defies every expectation you have. This film is full of surprises; brave surprises that are never gimmicky.

There are no heroes or villains in Ebbing, Missouri. There are just people making decisions. Every decision that’s based on anger leads to more anger. And every moment of forgiveness leads to more togetherness and peace.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred is an amazing, realistic lead character. she’s no fool, but she’s too angry and stubborn to ever learn her lesson. We the audience slowly realize what Mildred doesn’t: Even if she finds her daughter’s killer, she won’t be happy. She has already turned too many people against her and she is too overcome by hate.

Vengeance is never a virtue. Forgiveness is always the sensible choice.

 

 

Lady Bird

Image result for greta gerwig beauty

The Film that is going to win Best Picture

Lady Bird

****

 

Everybody knows that marriages require work to succeed.
Strangely, though, no one ever told me that having a positive, lasting relationship with my parents takes work, too.

Half of marriages end in divorce. But what percentage of children have always liked both their parents and enjoyed spending time with them? It’s darn well less than half.

If you aren’t careful, you will find a way to dislike your child. If you aren’t vigilant, you could simply run out of things in common and stop talking to each other. It doesn’t make you bad people, it just makes you human.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig made a perfect little indie film about a lousy mother/daughter relationship.

Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) stars as Lady Bird: a high school senior in Sacramento, California.

Lady Bird is a normal, relatable teenager. She’s not so great at school, not so smart with boys, and has a terrible relationship with her mother.

Laurie Metcalf (“Rosanne”) plays Lady Bird’s mother Marion. Marion probably never should have had kids and she quietly knows it. When her husband is laid off, Marion goes from hard-working mom to put-upon, unhappy grump.

Marion will never understand why Lady Bird isn’t grateful for all that she has done to sacrifice for the family. And Lady Bird will never understand why it is horribly stressful for her mother every time she mentions that she wants to go to an expensive east coast college.

“Lady Bird” is as empathetic and relatable a film as you’ll ever see. Writer/director Greta Gerwig is an explosive talent. It’s a shame (and a little sexist) that critics are assuming that the movie is autobiographical.

None of the other Best Director nominees are being accused of this. No one is assuming that Christopher Nolan was a British soldier because he couldn’t have made “Dunkirk” so believable if he hadn’t been. No one is asking Guillermo Del Toro how many magical sea monsters he slept with to research “The Shape of Water.”

My point is: “Lady Bird” is a first-rate film and Greta Gerwig deserves more credit than she is getting.

The best scene occurs 2/3 of the way through. Lady Bird is trying on prom dresses with Marion and there is tension as always. Suddenly, Lady Bird bluntly asks her mom: “Why don’t you like me?”

Marion, taken aback, can’t even bring herself to lie. She doesn’t like her daughter. She’s a mom who is doing the best she can for her family. That’s the best she’s got.

Greta Gerwig’s conclusion is perfect and real. Maybe, just maybe, Lady Bird and Marion will learn to like each other someday. But it’s certainly going to take some work.

Phantom Thread

Image result for alma phantom thread cooking

Phantom Thread

****

 

One of the most perverse and unnecessary spectacles in our society is when a woman is put on trial for killing her husband and then carted off to prison.

I am not defending murderers, but I don’t understand the point of locking away women like this for the rest of their lives. There are times when that Lady Justice statue needs to take off her blindfold, put down those scales, and use some common sense.

In every murder case, I think the primary question that jurors should be asking themselves before sending someone to prison is: “Is the defendant any danger to society?” In the case of a woman who killed her husband, the answer is a hard “no.”

To whom is she a danger? Maybe, just maybe, her next boyfriend. If you want to force a convicted killer to get a painful tattoo across her back that reads: “I killed my last husband. Beware,” I’m okay with that. But tossing her in prison? That’s not productive; it is blind vengeance disguised as justice.

If there is one thing that a dozen relationships and two marriages has taught me, it is that every love affair is different. There is no magic formula that ensures that a relationship will work and be healthy and will last.

Every couple is different. Every couple is fighting its own unique battle against the odds to make the relationships work. If you think you know everything that’s going on behind closed doors in another couple’s marriage, you are mistaken.

 

“Phantom Thread” is a simple story of a successful marriage. It’s also a unique, perverse art film that explores a relationship that most people would define as abusive and all people would define as illegal.

Daniel Day Lewis stars as Randolph Woodcock: the most revered fashion designer in post-war London. He is a rich, beloved celebrity and he’s a terrible man.

Randolph is obsessed with his work and his daily routine. Anyone who bothers him while working gets sniped at and cut down to size. He is self-centered, ungrateful, and childish. Oh, and he has weird mommy issues.

How the heck do you live with a man like that? Our heroine Alma is going to find out. For a while, it feels like “Phantom Thread” is about jerk Randolph dominating and destroying his unfortunate young lover.

But Alma is smarter, more willful, and more relentless than any of us give her credit for. The film is part Hitchcock, part Taming of the Shrew in reverse, and all genius.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson forces you to rethink what you know about power struggles within a marriage. Anderson argues that all is fair in love. And that anything Alma does to take control of her relationship is clever, reasonable, and justified. In fact, she is doing her idiot husband a favor.

If you have seen “Phantom Thread,” I want you to ask yourself: if Alma kills Randolph after the closing credits, is it right to put her on trial and condemn her to life in prison? If you seriously answered yes, you are as blind and cold as that Lady Justice statue.

I, Tonya

Image result for i, tonya gif

I, Tonya

****

 

It is open season on rednecks in our culture. In polite society, one is allowed to make fun of them, diminish them, call them awful names, or simply ignore their perspective entirely.

“I, Tonya” is the first serious film I’ve ever seen about a great redneck. This is not an indictment of the American working class, it is a condemnation of the classist jerks in Hollywood who don’t understand or appreciate them. But, hey, if you have to wait a lifetime for a film about your people, at least it should be great. “I, Tonya” is the best picture of the year.

Some critics observe that “I, Tonya” is condescending to Tonya Harding. I suppose that’s because they’ve never seen a movie like this and don’t understand it. Director Craig Gillespie tries to tell the truth about Tonya Harding to the best of his ability. And the truth is that she is an amazing athlete, an amazing competitor, and an amazing fighter. She’s a redneck, an admirable hero, and a great American champion.

The story begins in the mid 70s, somewhere in Oregon. Tonya Harding was LaVona Golden’s sixth child from her fourth husband. What did that mean? It meant no one ever treated Tonya like she was wanted or special. But she was special.

Tonya began winning skating contests at age four. By the time she was a teenager, Tonya was a nationally recognized skating dynamo. In 1991, she became the first American woman to land the Triple Axel in a competition.

It was quietly agreed upon that Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the greatest figure skater in the hemisphere. But she wasn’t always getting top scores, and it infuriated her.

After bravely (and profanely) confronting dozens of judges, one sheepish judge finally tells her what’s happening: “It’s not your skating, Tonya. It’s you. You’re representing America, for Goodness sake. We need to see a wholesome American family.”

Tonya Harding was the Tom Brady of skating. But she was treated like Blake Bortles because she wasn’t dainty, demure, passive, or upper middle class.

She could have sold out and acted like a proper lady to coax better scores out of the judges. But she couldn’t pretend to have a wholesome American family. Tonya was from a broken home and her loveless mother beat her. Tonya didn’t know any better so she married a loser who beat her.

Instead of giving Tonya Harding extra acclaim for overcoming her challenging personal life, people tried to keep her down. And ultimately succeeded.

Margot Robbie is a revelation as Tonya. This is the best performance by anyone in 2017. If Meryl Streep wins Best Actress over Robbie, it will be because the Academy voters are as classist as they are wrong.

Director Craig Gillespie doesn’t make “I, Tonya” a melodramatic story of heroes and victims. He presents Tonya Harding’s life as a tragic black comedy.

If you’re expecting “I, Tonya” to be about that one time a guy Tonya Harding didn’t know whacked Nancy Kerrigan in the knee, you’ll be disappointed.

This film isn’t about the Kerrigan incident, it’s about how we all reacted to it.

The fact that Tonya Harding isn’t revered as a sports hero says more about us than it does about her. America isn’t built to appreciate and admire redneck women. It’s built to laugh at them. And, when necessary, to destroy them.