A couple and their young son weather a difficult divorce.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson
Review by Jon Kissel
Marriage Story isn’t the first time director Noah Baumbach has taken instances from his life and slapped them onscreen. In The Squid and the Whale, a literary NYC couple divorces just as Baumbach’s parents did and the teenaged kids have to deal with it. Subsequent films of his like While We’re Young and The Meyerowitz Stories are surely infused with Baumbach’s relationship to the younger generation that he’s surrounded by in Brooklyn or with the rest of his family. I’ve seen most of Baumbach’s filmography, and while there’s always some sense of the man himself, especially in the non-Greta Gerwig collaborations, Marriage Story is the one that feels the most raw and real. Baumbach divorced actor Jennifer Jason Leigh in the early 2010’s, and there was likely a point in that three-year process that he pulled out a notepad and started making observations. By engaging in such intense self-examination and writing characters that do the same, Baumbach does that old thing of making the specific into the universal, of finding one couple’s peculiar problems and distilling them into broadly relatable fears and insecurities that most people, married or no, likely have.
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life begins with a suggestion that its central couple is in physical love with each other, as Kathryn Hahn’s Rachel and Paul Giamatti’s Richard are lying side by side on their bed together. Jenkins’ camera is at waist level, Richard asks if Rachel’s ready, he pulls her underwear aside, and… sticks her with a syringe. This is a couple desperate to have a baby, but sex doesn’t enter into the picture; based on this first scene, there’s only more pain for Rachel than she expected and exhaustion for Richard. As they both try and thwart their mid-life crises by starting a new life, Rachel and Richard go through a very difficult year of treatments and interviews and anticipation and disappointment in one of those movies that addresses How We Live Now. Jenkins joins Lynne Ramsay and Debra Granik as female directors who inexplicably had to wait years and years to put out their next film, only to grace 2018 with their particular strengths and perceptiveness towards all the joy and misery mixed up with being alive.
I’m as big a fan of Pixar as anybody, but there’s something about the opaque nature of creating computer graphics that makes the iconic studio’s style of animation somewhat less impressive. I have no doubt there’s a level of craftmanship in turning all those one’s and zero’s into photorealistic water or curly red hair, but I can’t help preferring the stop-motion of Laika and Wes Anderson’s pair of animated movies or the hand-drawn elegance of Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon. Movies from these studios inspire the viewer to momentarily step back and marvel at the amount of finely-tuned labor that went into a single frame. Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner has several of these moments within it, but it doesn’t subsist on visual awe though there’s plenty of it. Studio co-founder Nora Twohey’s film leaves behind the Ireland of Cartoon Saloon’s earlier Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea for Talbian-ruled Afghanistan and a desperate story of survival under tyranny whose charm isn’t lost in spite of its dire setting.
I’ve now seen two John Lee Hancock movies but I suspect that I know exactly what the rest are like: earnest performances from actors in inoffensive packages. Unmemorable scores, Americana, fundamentally conservative. That’s always been my impression of The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. The Alamo is the kind of movie a bored history teacher would show his class. My mom loves The Rookie (nuff said), and The Highwayman was only notable because it was about the cops who chased down Bonnie and Clyde, in opposition to the classic film that followed the robbers and heralded the beginning of Hollywood’s last golden age. Football, baseball, Disney, pop history, and Texas Rangers are all boxes for Hancock to tick on his USA bingo card, and with The Founder, fast food gets inked out, too. I eagerly await his future work about Levi Strauss, the digging of the Erie Canal, and Pecos Bill.
The films of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda typically contain no drama at all. In something like Our Little Sister or Still Walking, he makes the equivalent of TV hangout sitcoms where he organically clues the viewer in to various dynamics and watches as the characters visit a graveyard or prepare a complicated dish. Not every film has to have physical stakes, and his often don’t. I’ve seen about half of Koreeda’s films and Shoplifters has the highest stakes, by far. There’s a constant risk of discovery in the central family-ish unit, and Koreeda has called Shoplifters his ‘socially conscious’ entry. One can’t make a political point without some kind of conflict, and Shoplifters certainly has that. It also has what makes Koreeda such a notable filmmaker i.e. a realistic adherence to workaday life that still allows for the possibility of beauty to enter at any moment.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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