Oh, how the mighty have fallen. After the film run of Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman was flying high, having cracked the code to the contemporary American dramedy. Yet that run of successes would come to a screeching halt with the competent but underperforming Young Adult, followed by the bizarre Labor Day, and the oddly reactionary Men, Women & Children. Reitman has now gone back to the basics for his newest film, Tully, reuniting with screenwriter Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron. It’s his first movie in a long time that feels like it’s about real people with real problems, even if a third act revelation threatens to topple the film.
Theron is Marlo, an overworked mother just barely keeping her family afloat. She’s the mother of a fairly normal daughter, as well as a son with some kind of developmental disorder. (It’s on the autism spectrum, but Cody strangely chooses to never use that term.) The boy is overwhelmed by everyday sensory input, to the point that the sound of a flushing toilet sends him into hysterics. Tully opens with Marlo taking a soft bristled brush over his whole body, as if he were a horse. Reitman isn’t known for a particularly strong visual sense, but he and cinematographer Eric Steelberg shoot the scene in a lovely golden afternoon light, with tiny dust flecks dancing in the sunbeams. It’s a beautiful scene that signals one of the last peaceful moments Marlo will have for a long time.
Marlo is nearing the end of a pregnancy that she’s not prepared for. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), mostly disengages from maintaining the house. He swoops in after work to eat the dinner his wife cooked for him and play with his children in the house she cleaned for him, before retiring to the bedroom to play videogames. His routine doesn’t waver a bit when the baby finally arrives.
Drew and Marlo live in what might be a starter home for the more upwardly mobile, like her brother Craig (Mark Duplass). Craig’s wealth is the only thing keeping her children at an expensive private school (he made a sizeable donation), and now he wants to pay for a night nanny to help Marlo get a little sleep. Although initially resistant about having a stranger care for her baby, she eventually caves and gives the nanny a call.
The eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a revitalizing force. While Marlo gets some sleep, she cleans the house, cares for the baby, and even bakes cupcakes. Marlo actually looks forward to the liminal periods with Tully before retiring for the night. Davis is charming and knowing in these scenes, although her character mostly remains a mystery. There are hints of a laissez-faire approach to romance and new age-y parenting beliefs that threaten to turn her into a strangely maternal, manic pixie-dream girl, but Davis tones the more obnoxious elements down enough to avoid that. Although Tully begins as little more than a helpful force that drops in when the situation is most dire, she and Marlo begin to develop a stronger bond. Marlo sees herself in the younger woman, although she doesn’t quite understand just how alike they really are.
Theron is the rare actor who can make a role seem effortless, as if she’s really just playing herself, no matter how disparate the roles.
Tully’s approach to depicting motherhood veers toward the naturalistic without ever resorting to histrionics. Sure, Marlo has at least one shouting fit in a parking lot, but her struggles with a new baby and a child with a developmental disorder mirror the same struggles that plenty of other parents have faced. Many will wonder why she would ever want to have another child after the struggle she faces with her first two. It’s a fair question, but Tully is imbued with a faint sense of optimism; even at her darkest moments, Marlo thinks that things will eventually work out.
Theron has one of her strongest roles ever in Tully. She walks a delicate tightrope; becoming too stressed or flustered would turn Tully into a horror story about motherhood, but affecting too much of a cool, arch demeanor would destroy the emotional stakes of the role. She the rare actor who can make a role seem effortless, as if she’s really just playing herself, no matter how disparate the character. That feigned effortlessness also included gaining 50 pounds. (For comparison, Robert De Niro gained 70 pounds for the final stages of Raging Bull.) These kinds of physical transformations don’t make or break a film, but they do add welcome veracity. In Theron’s case, it also sets up one of Tully’s funniest moments when Marlo’s shirt is unexpectedly soiled, so she pulls it off and sits at the dinner table in nothing but pants and a bra, prompting her daughter to inquire, “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?”
For Tully’s first three-quarters, Reitman and Cody make a sensitive and poignant film about the struggles of parenting. In that final section, though, there’s a twist that threatens to sabotage all that came before. The details shouldn’t be revealed, but the case for that particular plot development is weak. It literalizes what Cody’s script had previously symbolized so effectively, and though the film eventually regains its footing and sticks the landing, one can’t help but pine for a cut that elides the needless twist.
Thanks to the unnecessary ending, Reitman hasn’t completed rehabilitated his career with Tully, but he’s at least suggested the possibility of a new phase, one that features neither the cynicism of his early work nor the confused sincerity of his recent films. He’s a director who lives or dies based on his actors and screenwriters, but he gets lucky with Tully.
Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan
Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something
You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.
Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts.
Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune.
And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.
I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie.
While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.
In Defense of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’
The anger and vitriol directed at Rian Johnson’s 2017 film is misplaced, as it’s actually the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since the original trilogy
Over the course of the last few years, a tiresome debate has been had, over and over again, over whether certain popular blockbuster movies have become too politically correct, too inclusive, too “woke.”
This debate has touched just about every piece of mass entertainment, from Marvel to Terminator to Watchmen to Charlie’s Angels, and it’s often used as a cudgel to gloat over negative box office results.
It’s all both exceedingly tiresome and not the slightest bit new, as it’s just a different name for what used to be called “liberal bias” analysis, back in the 1990s. But the worst thing of all about it the modern version of this is that “woke” is often merely another word for “this movie has women and minorities in prominent roles.”
“Every word of what you just said was wrong”
Probably the apotheosis of the recent version of this was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson’s film that came out in December of 2017. The Last Jedi received positive reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes critics score in the 90s, and made $1.3 billion worldwide, good for 13th all time. It was the #1 movie at the domestic box office in 2017, even though it was released two weeks before the end of the year.
However, since the time of the film’s release, there’s been a bitter, angry backlash against The Last Jedi, against director Rian Johnson, and in favor of a counter-narrative that says the film “ruined” Star Wars.
Yes, there are other arguments, about the film not being true to the character of Luke Skywalker, about Star Wars not being what it used to be following its 2012 acquisition by Disney, and other specious contentions that The Last Jedi “ruined” characters Star Wars fans used to like.
Nevermind that a certain subset of Star Wars fans has reacted with seething anger to just about every new Star Wars project, going back as far as Return of the Jedi. (The Mandalorian seems to have escaped this, through its first few episodes, but give it time.) Or that many of the complaints about The Last Jedi, from its hamfisted dialogue to its overly cute characters to the slowness at times of its plot, is true of just about every Star Wars movie.
Things get ugly
Of course, the backlash against The Last Jedi has taken on even uglier tones. There were death threats against Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose. Trolls admitted to manipulating the movie’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. That petition to strike the film from the Star Wars canon. The film has been the subject of way too many angry, ranting, three-hour YouTube videos.
Nasty as all of that stuff is, these people are just plain on the wrong side. That’s because The Last Jedi is a beautiful, special film, one that holds up on repeated viewings, and is by a pretty significant margin the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy.
There are many great things about The Last Jedi, starting with the return of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. The film centers Luke in a way that one hadn’t since Return of the Jedi, and explores the character in a fascinating way that is, contrary to what Last Jedi haters say, true to what may become of Luke.
There’s also a ten-minute sequence in the middle of The Last Jedi that’s up there with the very best of the Star Wars saga. That throne room scene, followed by Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo slamming into the ship -which Johnson shot as a knowing 2001: A Space Odyssey homage – is such a thrilling succession of events that I rewound and watched it again the last time I watched the movie. This part, in particular, made everyone in my critics’ screening gasp:
Then there’s the final scene, in which kids are playing with a Luke Skywalker toy.
The silly thing at all is that the film doesn’t even have much of a political agenda, unless you’re the sort of person who thinks that women and people of color having prominent roles in a movie is, by its very nature, problematically political.
It really can’t be emphasized enough that Star Wars has now been around for over 40 years. If you’re part of the original generation of fans, that saw the original movies in the theater and collected the original toys and everything else, you’re not only not the entirety of the Star Wars fan base anymore, but you’re not even the majority. And when it comes to Star Wars today, I care a lot more about what kids think than about what 45-year-olds think.
The director speaks
For Rian Johnson’s part, he’s found a way to often cleverly retort to trolls who still harass him regularly for directing a movie they didn’t like.
“The key to being on Twitter is like anything else- you have to enjoy it,” Johnson told me in a red carpet interview when his new film, Knives Out, showed at the Philadelphia Film Festival back in October. “If you’re not enjoying being on there, there’s no reason to be on there.. if you’re having fun, and you’re getting more out of it than you’re putting more into it- and I do, in all the interactions with the fans.
“The bad stuff gets written up a lot, but 95% of my interactions on there are wonderful and lovely,” he added. “And the stuff that’s bad, I’ve seen so much of it, I see the patterns it falls into, you don’t want to engage with it too much, but once in awhile it’s fun to just kind of play with it a bit.”
Too many Star Wars fans seem to think, despite everything, that they’re part of a small subculture of nerds and outcasts, as opposed to the closest thing to a worldwide monoculture that still exists.
It’s part of the ugly trend towards fandoms taking on the properties of identity politics. No, liking Star Wars doesn’t make you part of a marginalized, persecuted minority. You just didn’t like a movie, that’s it. George Lucas didn’t “rape” your “childhood,” and no, neither did Rian Johnson. All Johnson did was make a great film that took risks and saw nearly all of them pay off.
‘Greener Grass’ Is a Pain in The Ass
Maybe get high for this one
Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe as two soccer moms who battle it out over who has the more perfect suburban life, Greener Grass looks like it creators are having a lot of fun. Possibly more fun than anyone actually watching the film, a surrealist satire of suburban life that is neither cutting enough to be insightful nor funny enough to be worthwhile. While watchable thanks to its strange, cartoonish world-building and bold production design, it ultimately fails both as comedy and as meaningful commentary.
Greener Grass starts with Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) watching their kids play soccer; Jill has a new baby, which Lisa hadn’t previously noticed. In the first sign that this world is completely askew, Jill just gives her baby to Lisa as a present. This is one of the least weird things that happens in a film with little concern towards logical construction or narrative coherence.
Featuring a soundtrack giving off serious original Twin Peaks vibes, the world of Greener Grass is one of pure strangeness: cars are replaced by golf carts, characters wear matching coloured suits, and the whole town gives off a twinkling aura reminiscent of classic television adverts. Jill and Lisa are classic models of femininity, at one point switching husbands to kiss as a comment on how generic their men seem. Nonetheless, they are constantly competing, with the ever-susceptible Jill constantly on the lookout for a way that she can finally improve her life, while Lisa tries to iron out her own familial issues. Sadly, neither Jill nor Lisa ever make it past their sketch-show characterisations, making them at first unrelatable, before eventually becoming straight-up annoying.
There is a sense here that more care has been put into crafting this weird universe then telling a coherent story of what actually happens in it; Greener Grass mostly using its setting as an excuse to string together a bunch of middling skits. At first, the randomness seems freeing; when you watch so many films for a living, B constantly following A can get rather repetitive. This is a world where anything can happen and nothing is explained. For example, when Jill’s son turns into a dog — suddenly leaving the woman who once had two children with none at all — the how of it all is never asked, and the event is instead used as a means to explore Jill’s relationship to Lisa. Yet, once it becomes obvious that there is no true connective tissue between absurdities (like you might find in the tightly-wound films of Yorgos Lanthimos), the world of Greener Grass grows easily tiring — even moreso considering its barrage of adolescent, amateurish, awkward and atrocious attempts at comedy.
Comedy is a hard thing to quantify. Sometimes it simply boils down to whether something makes you laugh…or at least smile. While the madcap world of Greener Grass is aesthetically delightful, the jokes can come across as painfully awful — the kind of try-too-hard skits you find in the bottom basement of a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe. Undeniably an each-to-their-own kind of situation, its an even bigger shame that these jokes cannot even be corralled into something actually interesting.
The obvious influence here, in both form and construction (featuring a subplot with a mysterious killer), is David Lynch. Yet, while Twin Peaks (at least in season 1 and The Return) and Blue Velvet used that weirdness to expose the darker underbelly of American life, it’s hard to say what Greener Grass is actually saying about the nature of suburban aspiration. While it seems that the point is to show how suburban life is already kind of absurd, dialing the zaniness up to eleven doesn’t hammer in that point any further. It comes as little surprise that the feature film is adapted from a short. Perhaps it should’ve stayed that way.
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