Lady Bird

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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.

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The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water

**1/2

 

“The Shape of Water” does a magnificent job of bringing us into its world.

The film takes place in an alternative version of early 1960s Baltimore: with huge apartments, secret military laboratories, kind-hearted Russian spies, and very few black people. Oh, and one magical sea creature.

Director Guillermo Del Toro is unquestionably a talented director. And he has a niche genre that’s all his own.

Del Toro makes fairy tale fantasy movies. The plots sound like they are for children. But children aren’t allowed to watch his films due to the extreme graphic violence, copious F-bombs, and full-frontal nudity.

Del Toro’s breakthrough hit, 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is a 4-star classic. It’s the story of an imaginative little girl in 1930s Spain who creates a macabre alternative world. Del Toro’s point is that she is incapable of imagining anything as scary and terrible as her real life in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War.

“The Shape of Water” doesn’t have a clear point. And it’s not nearly as good as “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

“Water” tells the story of a mute lady named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who takes a liking to the sea creature who is chained up in the military lab where she works. When Elisa sees him, it is love at first sight. That doesn’t make any darn sense, but it is convenient for the plot.

Unfortunately, military man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) hates the creature as much as Elisa loves him.

The rest of the movie is essentially a Loony Tunes cartoon as Elisa’s Bugs Bunny outsmarts and hurts Strickland’s Elmer Fudd. Only this time, Elmer Fudd’s wounds bleed and get ghastly infections.

The problem with fairy tales is that they don’t have good characters – only heroes and villains. “The Shape of Water” is no different.

The film is perfectly entertaining. But ultimately I didn’t care about the love story and didn’t root for the heroes because they are so perfectly likable and bland.

Guillermo Del Toro didn’t foresee the problem with having a pack of flawless heroes and a villain played the great Michael Shannon who possesses every human vice. Eventually, intelligent viewers are going to begin to empathize with Strickland.

Strickland’s last words to the sea creature “****. You are a god” is the film’s only moment of true magic and wonder.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie. “The Shape of Water” does a magnificent job of bringing us into its world. But a lousy job of relating it to our world.

Phantom Thread

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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

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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.

The Post

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The Post

**

 

After the indefensible disaster of the Iraq War, we are not as quick to trust politicians when they try to get involved in foreign conflicts.

In 2013, President Obama tried his best to rally our support for war when Syrian President Assad defied Obama’s Line in the Sand. We were just about to go to war against Damascus and possibly Russia when the American people resoundingly and smartly rose up against it.

So… what is a militarist regime to do when its people don’t trust it and are sick of war? Battle secretly, of course!

The US is still actively involved in Libya. Our bombing raids destroyed a stable, anti-Islamist, pro-minority regime and replaced it with chaos, Al-Qaeda, and a return to the slave trade. And we’re still there finding new ways to mess the place up.

Our military has been working hand in hand with Saudi Arabia to decimate Yemen since 2015. It never bothered to tell us why.

There are US boots in Pakistan even though it is not even clear whether the regime in Islamabad is our ally or a pro-Taliban, pro-terrorism arch enemy.

There is an enduring military and CIA presence in Chad, Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia. They figure that you don’t know where those countries are and don’t care how many people we kill there.

Oh, by the way, the military is still meddling in Syria, too, even though we told them not to.

THE story of the Obama years was how the War on Terror went underground. But it wasn’t covered because the Establishment Media is shameless and terrible.

 

Apparently, that was not always the case.

Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” tells the semi-gripping story of how the feisty editor (Tom Hanks) and the brave publisher (Meryl Streep) of the Washington Post defied the Nixon Administration and published the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The Pentagon Papers were a secret report by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that explored the consequences of American actions in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

The two most damning aspects of the Pentagon Papers was the revelation that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson actively lied to the American people about what was really happening in Vietnam. And the upsetting fact that the military agreed that the war was unwinnable as early as 1965 but sent two million more men there, anyway.

We are supposed to feel like the Washington Post reporters were brave to publish the Pentagon Papers because the Nixon White House had filed a court injunction trying to criminalize the publication of military secrets.

Spielberg tried to spin this into a life and death battle for the free press. It wasn’t. It was little more than an ill-conceived dirty trick by the White House against hostile newspapers that Nixon feared were working to destroy him. He was dead right, by the way.

The more compelling drama comes from publisher Kay Graham’s difficult decision to betray her close friends Lady Bird Johnson and Robert McNamara by making them look bad in her newspaper.

“The Post” is an awkward failure by an aging director who may be losing his edge for good. Every conclusion that Spielberg makes is either childishly obvious or completely wrong.

His primary argument is that the Pentagon Papers marks the end of the era where newspaper bigwigs befriended and protected politicians.

The last decade proves that this is total hogwash. The press kept silent about the secret wars of the Obama years because it adored the President.

And if American reporters ever decide to shine a spotlight on the lies and abuses of our military and CIA, it will not be because they care about the lives of brown and black people. It will be because they want to destroy a President who refuses to be friends with them.

Downsizing

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Downsizing

*1/2

 

Around 1900, progressive dreamers wrote a series of Utopian novels, sharing their vision of a perfect Socialist future.

One thing that they all had in common is communal living. In the perfect future, they assumed, people would live together in large apartment complexes.

Communal living is just rudimentary common sense. It saves lumber, brick, and steel. It saves electricity. It saves fuel because people are close to town and closer to work. It saves heating oil.

Somewhere in the 20th Century, this efficient communal ideal was tossed in the garbage and was replaced by the ideal that a respectable American has to live in a house.

Nothing, it seems, can shake the ideal of the single-family home.

It has been proven that home ownership primarily benefits big banks, oil companies, IKEA, and Home Depot. It doesn’t make the people who live inside the houses happier – just more indebted.

But check out any commercial during the playoff games this weekend. Whether they are selling Fabreze, Fritos, or Pharmaceuticals, the smiling Americans in the ads are all living in spacious single-family houses. It’s as if apartment dwellers or people who share their houses with renters are too poor or too uncivilized to even show on television.

 

“Downsizing” shows us a 21st Century Utopia where almost everyone can afford to buy a house in cash.

In writer/director Alexander Payne’s imaginative new world, people have the choice to undergo an irreversible procedure that reduces their size by approximately 99%.

Living a new life at 5 inches tall is extremely appealing to two very different types of people: environmentalists who want to leave a smaller carbon footprint. And hedonists who want to enjoy all the finer things in life (diamonds, drugs, and mansions) for a fraction of the price of regular-sized people.

Alexander Payne’s point is that people are eager to buy any product that makes them feel like they are saving the planet or keeping up with the Joneses. But they aren’t willing to do the one thing that will actually lead to environmental conservation and happiness: stop wanting more things.

If Payne had nailed this point home and given us a few laughs along the way, “Downsizing” would have been an American classic. But he takes the film in a very different direction. “Downsizing” is full of surprises, but each surprise takes the story further off course.

Matt Damon’s lead character is so boring and bland that you never care whether he finds himself.

Matt Damon was once a great movie star with a cool sense of humor. Now he seems more and more like the dense marionette caricature version of him from “Team America: World Police.” When Damon isn’t educating us about the difference between butt slapping and sexual assault (wow, thanks Matt!), he is making lousy movies. What was his last decent film? 2006’s “The Departed” maybe?

 

“Downsizing” is an over-long, unfocused bummer of a film. I haven’t felt this ripped off since that time that I foolishly bought a house.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

****

 

2015’s “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” was a horrible movie.

To me, it was easily the worst Star Wars installment to date. I’ve watched all the other episodes dozens of times. I tried watching “The Force Awakens” a second time at home and I turned it off after fifteen boring minutes.

When Disney bought the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas for $4 billion, I figured that there would be some greedy, uninspired Star Wars flicks. But, honestly, I never imagined that it was possible to make one as childishly bad as JJ Abrams’s Episode VII.

 

Star Wars is back. “Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” is a splendid adventure that is worthy of the Star Wars name.

“The Last Jedi” begins with the good guys in a bad spot. The Resistance is outnumbered and outgunned by the evil First Order. All the rebels want to do is retreat and regroup in order to fight another day. And it isn’t easy. The film is essentially “Dunkirk” in space.

Meanwhile, Rey – the new Resistance hero – has traveled to the far reaches of the galaxy to enlist Luke Skywalker in the fight. But Luke isn’t interested in fighting.

Luke isn’t just retired, he is cynical. In my favorite scene, Luke Skywalker rails against the Jedi for losing to the Emperor. He rightly observes that the Jedi failed as leaders due their lack of vision and their hubris. The Jedi were so certain that they were in the right that they waged a self-destructive war that ended the Republic.

 

“The Last Jedi” is everything “The Force Awakens” failed to be. “Force” was an action flick; “Jedi” is a philosophy-filled drama. “Force” was an improbable story of underdogs winning against all odds; “Jedi” is a story of underdogs failing again and again.

JJ Abrams’s Kylo Ren was the worst thing about “The Force Awakens” and the worst villain in Star Wars history.

Kylo Ren is reborn in “The Last Jedi” as an interesting character. You believe that he’s powerful. You believe that he’s conflicted. You see him harnessing the Dark Side of the Force to feed his mad ambition. I can’t wait to see what he does in Episode IX.

 

“The Last Jedi” is so darn solid that you could almost be fooled into thinking that “The Force Awakens” served a purpose. With his disgraceful stupidity, JJ Abrams showed Disney everything NOT to do when making a Star Wars film.

As Yoda explains: “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight

***1/2

 

Some people interpret “Thou shalt not bear false witness” to mean that God prohibits lying completely.

I’m not so sure. I think that it makes more sense that the 8th Commandment is intended to condemn those who have sworn to tell the truth in a specific circumstance and then lie. Perjury=breaking a commandment. Lying=not great, but what are you going to do?

Lies are like Dollar Stores. They’re everywhere. They’re bad. The world would be better without them, but there’s no sense in trying to stop them entirely. The best thing a wise person can do is learn to spot them and deal with them.

Someday you’ll get a pop up on your computer or a call from someone who says that your computer is infected with viruses.

If you don’t recognize that the “Microsoft” guy on the other end of the phone is lying, you will be giving him your credit card number and you’ll rightly feel like a fool.

The consequences of gullibility in that case is $200. In Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” the consequences of believing lies is swift violent death.

 

The story begins in a covered wagon plodding through the Wyoming snow circa 1875. All four passengers (Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Coggins, and Samuel L Jackson) are on their way to the town of Red Rock. But they may never get there.

Because of a blinding blizzard, the four hearty old westerners end up stopping for night at Minnie’s Haberdashery. But Minnie isn’t there, four unknown men are. Our eight anti-heroes need to be smart about who they trust or they won’t live through the night.

If you like Agatha Christie-style whodunnits and don’t mind hearing the n-word every three minutes, you’ll love “The Hateful Eight.”

Quentin Tarantino’s best film, “Pulp Fiction,” was about the supernatural power of faith. The two lead characters who follow their moral instincts – Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson – survive. Meanwhile, John Travolta ignores a miracle and dies ignominiously.

“The Hateful Eight” puts a dark spin on the same theme. In Tarantino’s post-Civil War America, God has turned the other way. There are no miracles and there are no moral people. There are only savvy men and gullible corpses.

In the film’s most memorable scene, Samuel L Jackson’s character tries to infuriate an old Confederate General with a vivid, lurid tall-tale. It’s fairly obvious to us that Jackson’s story is made up. The General partly understands it, too. All he needs to do is control his foolish instincts to believe what he is told and he will live…

“The Hateful Eight” isn’t Tarantino’s best. But even mediocre Tarantino films contain more memorable dialogue and outrageous comedy than anything else out there.

 

In this deception-filled world, learning to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not is one of the greatest skills you can have. And that’s no lie.