Thursday, December 31, 2020

Top 10 films of 2020


I've made a Top 10 list every year for about 25 years now, and if I were to line up 2020 in the cinematic pantheon I would call it about an average year for movies. Maybe a wee touch below -- not because we're missing nearly all of the big-budget films that pushed their release to the next year (or streaming platforms) because of "you know." But because the crop of award contenders that arrive in a rush of screeners at year's end severely disappointed me. 

I powered through about a film a day during mid-November to mid-December, and the best stuff all arrived right at the beginning. It was a long slog after that.

So by necessity all of my favorite movies were "small" films, though I must say my tastes have been trending that way the last few years anyway. What can I say, getting older and all that. I still can adore the Star Wars and Marvel pictures and whatnot, just not enough to break into my top 10.

What I did not love were the two movies I was most anticipating since springtime, when it became clear only a handful of blockbusters would see their way to wide release. I really, really, really wanted to love "Tenet" and "Wonder Woman 1984." Instead they were among the year's biggest disappointments, not truly awful flicks but a crushing fall from the heights we were used to.

A big notable change you'll see in this list is the inclusion of films that debuted on video-on-demand or streaming services like Netflix, Amazon or Apple TV+. I'll never give up my belief that theaters is the best way to experience film, but this is the way of the new, platform-neutral world.

So here is my Top 10 Films of 2020, along with the usual odd jamble of contenders I considered for the list. 

Other than the two mentioned above, I won't be doing a "worst of" or "most disappointing" list this year because, frankly, it's a depressing exercise. And bad movies tend to leave few footprints in my memory... going through my review list this year I'm amazed how many I'd complete forgotten.

  1. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom -- Yet another adaptation of an August Wilson play swings for the fences, and knocks it over. Denzel Washington's biggest impact on cinema may yet be as a producer rather than an actor. A true ensemble piece with no lead characters, it centers around Viola Davis as a powerful and resentful blues singer and Chadwick Boseman as the ambitious young coronet player who wants to do his own thing. Both buck up against the white power structure but in very different ways. Gorgeous and yet full of ugliness, musical and timeless.
  2. Mank -- This year's real love-it-or-hate-it flick. Or rather, love-it-or-be-utterly-indifferent to it. Many of my fellow Indiana critics said it left them listless and bored. Which is astonishing to me. I, who constantly complain that so many movies are too long, was never less than enthralled for 131 minutes. Another powerhouse performance from Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, the scribe behind "Citizen Kane." (And, somewhat, Orson Welles too.) Great black-and-white cinematography, a surprisingly sensitive portrait of Hearst and Amanda Seyfried wowed me like never before. Old school "Oscar bait" filmmaking.
  3. Wolfwalkers -- Far and away the best animated film of 2020, so of course it'll lose the Oscar to Pixar's medium-good "Soul." From the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, a mythical tale of a girl who encounters were-creatures and wants to kill them, but winds up as their champion. Some soulful voice work by Sean Bean.
  4. Emma -- Autumn de Wilde has the most ostentatious directorial debut I've seen in a while with this vibrant, colorful, funny and touching take on the Jane Austen classic. No surprise, as she's actually been making shorts and music videos for years. A great cast led by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is surely among the best in her generation of actresses. I read they made this movie for $10 million, which astounds me -- surely the costumes and sets alone cost that.
  5. Nomadland -- The astonishing stillness of this movie. Not really much in the way of story; the journey mostly takes place inside the soul of Fern, an older widowed woman who has lost her job and home but chooses to travel about in her van. Another sure-fire Academy Award nomination for Frances McDormand, who is quietly making the case to take the throne as America's greatest living actor.
  6. The Personal History of David Copperfield -- Another musty old British literature classic breathed back to vibrant new life. I liked the multicultural cast where people of all hues and accents play characters without regard to origin or relationships, so a Chinese actor might have a Black daughter and so forth. Dev Patel gets another meaty role after a few years of wandering.
  7. Desert One -- The best documentary I saw this year from the immortal Barbara Kopple. It examines the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis from all angles -- the captives, the politicians, the Iranians and the members of the failed military mission to come to the rescue. I love movies that take a piece of well-known history and work it front to back to reveal all sorts of perspectives and information you didn't know.
  8. Possessor (Uncut) -- I've been underwhelmed by a lot of the celebrated horror films of recent years, but this one from Brandon Cronenberg genuinely creeped me the hell out. Thematically borrows from Philip K. Dick in the tale of assassins who invade the mind of regular people to murder others. But what happens when the best agent finds a soft spot in her heart for her latest avatar?
  9. News of the World -- Another stodgy old-timey piece I liked more than most. What can I say, I'm a stodgy old-timer myself. Shades of "The Searchers" with Tom Hanks as a Union soldier who travels the West reading newspapers to unenlightened frontier folk, and finds himself charged with returning a girl who has been raised by American Indians to her family.
  10. The Outpost -- A largely forgotten skirmish in Afghanistan was turned into a book by Jake Tapper and then a terrific war movie by director Rod Lurie. If Caleb Landry Jones doesn't get a supporting actor nod from the Academy, a true crime will have occurred.

 Best of the Rest

Usually I anguish about the last few spots on my top 10 list, moving them up and down as I decide what will make the cut. Surprisingly, this year it was pretty easy to discriminate. Here are films I respected and enjoyed. In no particular order:

  • Call of the Wild -- Go ahead and make fun of the CGI dog -- which I'll contend looks no worse than the critters in the utterly unnecessary "The Lion King" reboot -- but this film contains one of Harrison Ford's finest performances. Really.
  • End of Sentence -- The always-terrific John Hawkes plays a diffident dad trying to reconnect with his son just released from prison after his wife has died. 
  • The Painter and the Thief -- A very different kind of documentary that focuses on the weird but wonderful relationship that strikes up between an artist and the man who stole her paintings.
  • 7500 -- Another streaming service movie not enough people saw with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an airline pilot in a hijacking situation. 
  • Greyhound -- Tom Hanks in the best war picture hardly anybody saw. Some love for the Navy!
  • The Secret Garden -- A lovely, sad but uplifting adaptation of the classic novel.
  • She's in Portland -- Not your typical buddy road trip story, as the guy who would usually be the asshole antagonist or wingman gets the spotlight.
  • Yellow Rose -- Charming story about an illegal immigrant who falls in love with country-western music.
  • Beanpole -- The best foreign language film I saw this year, though it both seemed like a weak year and we didn't get as many releases as we normally would. I get the sense subtitled films don't do as well on VOD.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Reeling Backward: "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985)


 "We're all going through this. It's our time on the edge."


For another entry in my series of "Films of the '80s I Was Too Busy Doing Nerdy Stuff To Watch" we have "St. Elmo's Fire," a very cool movie starring a bunch of very cool actors that all the cool teenagers and college students went to see.

It's a seminal work in the Brat Pack phenomenon, which played out more in magazines and pop culture than actual celluloid. The story focuses on seven recent graduates of Georgetown University who are trying to get their careers and love lives going in the D.C. area, failing miserably but having a ball while doing it.

Director Joel Shumacher cast Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson based on John Hughes' recommendation for their work in his "The Breakfast Club," which hit theaters just four months earlier. Reportedly Schumacher had to beg the studio to let him hire them, since nobody really knew who they were at the time. 

Same (mostly) goes for the rest.

Demi Moore had a bit part in "Blame It On Rio" the year before, and Andrew McCarthy had a starring role in "Class," a modest hit two years before. Mare Winningham, the lone non-Packer of the bunch, had similarly been in only a few things.

Rob Lowe, just 20 years old at the time of filming, was the relative established star of the bunch, already a graduate of "The Outsiders," "The Hotel New Hampshire," a leading role in "Oxford Blues" and playing alongside McCarthy in "Class."

Looking back on "St. Elmo's" now, I can see why it was big cultural hit (and to a lesser extent than is generally acknowledged, a box office one). It straddles the the line between late Baby Boomers and Generation X in its appeal to both. The former was graduated from college and partying, and the latter was dreaming about doing so.

It's a spot-on portrait of a very specific point in life for white-collar types, where you have a close circle of friends who are not yet tied down to family and your careers are just getting started. So you are literally around each other all the time, either everybody together or smaller break-off groups. Some people work together or share an apartment. Likely there's a mix of genders, so there's a certain amount of bed-hopping and broken hearts built into the mix.

"St. Elmo's" is terrific at capturing that time. At pretty much everything else, it's atrocious.

My biggest impression after watching it for the first time is that the four male characters are, without exception, terrible human beings. They're manipulative and caddish and make like they're friends with the three women, but are usually just trying to get into their pants, or any woman's.

Any regular reader of this column will know that I generally stay away from political analysis of film, and I absolutely loathe bashing movies from long ago for not syncing with today's sensibilities. That said, "St. Elmo's" makes the 1980s in general and the young men of that age look terrible.

Let's take the best first. McCarthy's Kevin is a sullen, chain-smoking mope who hasn't had sex in years. He's landed a plum job at the Washington Post straight out of college -- which is starting a journalism career on third base -- but is upset that he's consigned to writing obits. Everyone seems to think Kevin's gay, and there's a brief, interesting flirtation with the idea that would've been interesting to explore in a mainstream 1985 movie. 

So, of course, it doesn't.

Kevin seems like the quintessential "friend zone" dude that girls love as a pal but don't want to jump in the sack with. Veeeerrrryyy late in the movie -- so late it feels tacked on -- we learn the object of his mopey obsession is Leslie (Sheedy), an ambitious architect with cold feet about getting tied down too soon.

Unfortunately, Leslie is pre-engaged to Alec (Nelson), the most aggressively awful of the boys. A gung-ho liberal in college, he's working for a Republican senator because it pays better and because it's the current flavor of the decade. Alec keeps pressuring Leslie to marry him, though hides the real reason: he's a serial cheater, and has deluded himself into believing that if he puts a ring on it, it'll settle his Lothario urges. 

In one of the film's few clever tweaks, Alec and Leslie begin dressing more alike as the movie goes on, with heavy doses of the popped collars and skinny ties of the era.

Alec is the unofficial, self-appointed leader of the group of friends. One of his prime duties is bailing out Billy (Lowe) from his latest scrap or finding him a new job. A saxophone-playing party machine on campus, Billy is gorgeous and guileless, without a mean bone in his body but self-absorbed down to his guts. 

Billy already has a wife (barely seen Jenny Wright) and baby girl, the result of a schooltime romance and quickie marriage, but he's barely ever home. The group fuckup, Billy crashes with whoever will take him.

He leans most heavily on Wendy (Winningham), who's 22 going on 50. The straight-arrow virgin Jewish girl, Wendy comes from money but has taken a job working for the city public assistance agency, where she's hollered at or ignored by the entitled downtrodden. She is infatuated with Billy, who "borrows" money via her father (the great Martin Balsam), a greeting card store baron who wants to bribe his daughter with a Chrysler LeBaron to marry a nice Jewish boy who has committed the unpardonable sin of being homely.

(Really, dad? Couldn't even spring for a Corvette?)

In the movie's calculation, being a total loser who looks like Billy is better than being smart, stable and doting.

Billy uses Wendy quite poorly, making a mockery of her affection for him, then offering to bed her like a master passing out table scraps to the family pooch.

He makes much the same offer to Jules (Moore), the hard-charging self-described slut of the group. Julies is a party-every-night girl who's failing at her banking job while spending her way into a pile of debt. On the surface she seems like the toughest one in the group but we know it's a matter of time before her house of cards comes piling down on her. 

Probably the most underwritten of the main characters, Jules registers as a retrograde "type," the have-it-all feminist who's really a narcissistic weakling.

The one character who seems to operate more or less outside the rest of the gang is Estevez' Kirby, who works at the titular bar while studying law. Early on he bumps into Dale (Andie MacDowell), an ER doctor who was three years ahead of him at college. He more or less decides on the spot that he's still in love with her... and therefore she must be with him, too.

Kirby contrives all sorts of sitcommy contretemps to lure her in, from booking a table at a fancy restaurant (arriving two hours early and paying double to secure it), switching to medical school to follow in her footsteps, borrowing his boss' limo to pretend to be suddenly rich, and tracking Dale down at a ski lodge where she's canoodling with another doctor. 

Kirby's behavior is straight-up psycho stalker, and the fact the movie tries to spin it into some kind of adorable love quest seems really skewed. Things wind up with him stealing a kiss so rapturous that as he drives off, Dale is left touching her lips with a "what if" look on her face.

Date rape -- it means he really likes you!!

You can practically see the seeds of "Friends" being sown her, along with a dozen other TV shows about single young people in an urban setting. Indeed, "St. Elmo's" has a very situation dramedy feel to it, and we feel like it starts in the third season. So the audience is assumed to intuitively grasp the characters' backstories and various magnetic poles, and pulls.

They even have their own built-in nonsense catchphrase, where they all lean into a circle and chime something like, "Boogedy boogedy boogedy Ah Ah Hah!"

The film starts out very light and goofy and steadily tries to get more serious. The script by Schumacher and his former assistant, Carl Kurlander, is fast-paced to the point of approaching a slamming-doors comedy or the patter of "His Girl Friday." We never have time to become emotionally invested in the characters, so we don't.

(It was, appropriately, Kurlander's only feature film writing credit.)

There was an attempt a few years back to turn "St. Elmo's Fire" into a TV series, but I think its best expression would be as a limited streaming series of 13 one-hour episodes or so. Each of the characters' journeys could start and stop at different points, overlapping and intersecting with each other.

Instead, it feels like a music video version of a movie -- lots of teased hair and pop rock, then we're on to the next cool thing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Review: "Fatale"


Hollywood has never had a firm idea exactly what to do with Hilary Swank. After winning two Oscars in her 20s for non-traditional gender roles, she's been constantly busy but rarely found strong parts in big films or a particular niche to fill. She was wonderful in the under-appreciated "The Homesman" a few years back, which almost nobody saw.

As a result, like Ben Kingsley she's an unfortunate contender for the title of "Oscar winner who appears in the most bad movies."

Sadly that's another point on the board for her with "Fatale," an aggressively awful psychological thriller where she plays a dirty cop setting up a sports management mogul played by Michael Ealy. It's one of those movies intended for mostly African-American audiences where she's relegated to the Evil White Person role. 

I'm OK with making Caucasians the heavy, but just like it when it's done with something like originality and panache. This is like a grade-Z modern film noir where you can literally see every perambulation of the plot three moves ahead. It's crime story as soap opera.

Swank does get to play something we don't get to see her do a lot, a sexy role as an alluring woman of mystery. Her looks have unfortunately become something of a pop culture meme, including that famous "Is Hilary Swank hot?" episode of "The Office" some years back. To me, the answer is unambiguously "yes," so I don't exactly know why this is a thing or has acted to limit her roles.

Maybe it's because of her strong jaw or roles playing a boxer and transman. We've come so far...

The film is directed by Deon Taylor ("Lakeview Terrace") and scripted by David Loughery, both of whom have a knack for these sorts of slick, multicultural, vaguely exploitative dramas. (They worked together on "The Intruder," another crazy-honky-torments-beautiful-black-folk story, also starring Ealy.)

The end result is something that feels formulaic and unfocused. The filmmakers seem obsessed with bedazzling us with the bling of an affluent L.A. lifestyle -- fancy mansions in the hills, zero-edge pools, cars that cost as much as the average American house -- to the detriment of competent plotting and character development.

Ealy is Derrick Taylor, a rising sports agent who built his company from the ground up with his buddy and partner, Rafe (Mike Colter). They're already rich but about to break into the big time with A-list signees. (This being a low-budget film, Lance Stephenson, formerly of the Pacers and most recently the Liaoning Flying Leopards, is the biggest name they get for a cameo.)

His marriage with beautiful-but-icy Traci (Damaris Lewis) is on the rocks, and he starts to suspect all those late nights celebrating with real estate agents are something else. So when he's in Las Vegas for a friend's bachelor's party, Derrick falls to temptation with Veronica (Swank), a tall brunette who's simultaneously tough but needy in a locks-your-phone-in-her-hotel-room-safe kinda way. 

Back in L.A., Derrick is nearly killed by a masked intruder in his home, and who would be assigned to the case but Veronica, who turns out to be a storied police detective. She's got some personal troubles of her own, including a snidely ex (Danny Pino) who's a city councilman keeping their daughter from her.

Somehow, Veronica funnels her hatred for her ex into her contempt for Derrick, because he "used" her back in Las Vegas. Veronica's motivation for her subsequent dastardly actions is the movie's most under-explored territory, which leaves Swank having to stand around spewing a lot ridiculous gun-moll dialogue without any context to ground her character in. I hate to say it, but some of her line readings even come off as amateurish.

As for Ealy, Derrick is built as such a passive, reactive character that he seems like a puppet in his own life. We get lots of scenes of him with brow furrowed and jaw tucked into his chin as he struggles with his fate. I think he's supposed to smolder but largely comes across as an indecisive wimp.

Movies like "Fatale" are made to serve a very specific purpose, and I'm guessing the audience it's intended for will be sated by spoon-feeding them what they want. Personally I hate to see Swank used so poorly once again -- but then again, she signed on for this dreck. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Air Force One" (1997)

"Air Force One" was one of those movies that, even when it came out, people instantly recognized it for exactly what it what was: effective, jingoistic entertainment in which we get to root for our national leaders as legit butt-kicking heroes instead of the shrunken egotists and feeble pretenders they've largely become. 

President Bill Clinton would screen the movie at the White House twice, no doubt happy to share the limelight with Mr. Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford, as his alpha-male stand-in, James Marshall. He's a Vietnam vet and Medal of Honor winner who goes toe-to-toe with a group of splinter Russian terrorists who have hijacked his eponymous plane.

The timing of the film's arrival is funny, since at the time we had turned out one legit war hero to elect a waffling draft-dodger, who would then win a strong reelection campaign against another, crippled war hero. It seems people like the idea of a president who lays it on the line, shooting guns and throwing haymakers, only in the abstract.

Written by Andrew W. Marlowe, his first feature film (and one of only three), "Air Force One" is notable for its tight, interlocking layers of storytelling and fantabulous cast. It's one of the leanest two-hour movies you'll ever see, and besides the perennially underrated Ford it also boasts Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Dean Stockwell and Xander Berkeley.

And, of course, it's directed by German master Wolfgang Petersen, who came to America and had a great two-decade run -- "Troy," "In the Line of Fire," "Outbreak" -- before being sunk by "Poseidon." Petersen is terrific at taking stories with lots of moving pieces and disparate characters and assembling it all so it clicks into a cohesive whole.

I was surprised watching it again for the first time in at least a decade how much geopolitical intrigue there is in the film. In the fictional world of the movie, the U.S. and Russia are chummy and have just deposed the dictator of Kazakhstan, Gen. Ivan Radek (Petersen pet J├╝rgen Prochnow), who oversaw a mass refugee exodus and threatened to use nuclear weapons.

Marshall has just declared a new interventionist stance on the world stage -- with the centerpiece being that they will take the fight to terrorists and oppressors instead of negotiating with or accommodating them.

So, of course, he's immediately faced with a situation where the president must choose between the welfare of his own family and staff or giving into a Russian terrorist, Ivan Korshunov (Oldman), who wants Radek sprung from prison.

Actual American interventionism would, of course, lead to some very dire outcomes not too many years down the line.

Korshunov gets a couple of chilling speeches that I'm sure went right over the heads of American audiences in the middle of the dot-com boom. Responding to the bitter denunciation of the First Lady, Grace Marshall (Wendy Crewson), that he has just murdered an innocent woman, Korshunov spits back:

"You, who murdered a 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas, are going to lecture me about the rules of war?!?" This is a reference to the first Persian Gulf War, lauded around the world as a high point for American might married with collaborative diplomacy -- but not without its collateral damage.

Later, finally confronting the president in person, Korshunov rejects Marshall's insistence that he can't just call the Russian leader and have Radek released. Three years before Vladimir Putin came into power, Korshunov gives voice to a sentiment that was already gaining volume in the former Soviet Union.

"You talk as you have nothing to do with this. This is all your doing, this infection you call freedom -- without meaning and without purpose. You have given my country to gangsters and prostitutes. You have taken everything from us! There's nothing left!"

It's a little foggy about what Korshunov intends to do if his scheme works -- replace the weak Russian president with Radek? Of course, elaborate plots by heavily accented villains in the movies tend to have very limited steps. (See Gruber, Hans.)

The middle of the movie is essentially one real-time cat-and-mouse chase, with the Russians posing as journalists to get aboard Air Force One, then easily overpowering the Secret Service with the help of one of their own, Gibbs (Berekeley). For some reason, we never learn Gibbs' backstory or why he would undertake such treachery. He's actually treated as just one of the other hostages, until the very (literal) last minute.

Everyone thinks Marshall has safely gotten away in the escape pod, but secretly he hid in the bowels of the airplane and seeks to save his wife and daughter, along with everyone else.

"Air Force One" was in a lot of ways the apotheosis of the phenomenon of "Die Hard on a..." rip-offs, with "Speed" giving us "Die Hard on a Bus" and this being the "on a plane" variation. (Though, really, "Passenger 57" did that a few years earlier.) The basic concept is the same: the hero is trapped in a confined space with murderous forces and innocent bystanders, and has to puzzle out a solution.

Smartly, rather than just making the plane seem like an amorphous behemoth, the movie essentially divides it into a few key sections where the all the action takes place. The hostages are held on the main passenger level, with regular seats in the back and private space and a larger conference room for the POTUS and his staff up front.

Marshall is largely confined to the lowest deck filled with baggage, blinking gizmos that'll become important later, and the loading ramp -- which, along with the escape pod and a few other features highlighted in the film, didn't actually exist in the real presidential aircraft. He makes a few forays upstairs when he can, or draws the terrorists down to him by dumping the plane's fuel.

Korshunov mostly stays in the command center that's a half-flight up from the presidential quarters, along with the cockpit where his pilot (Elya Baskin) handles the flying, though as we'll see the fancy plane is practically autonomous, even ripping the steering column away from manual control when it's performing evasive maneuvers against incoming missiles.

Probably about a quarter of the action cuts away to the White House, where the Vice President, Kathryn Bennett (Close), tries to keep a tamp on the situation while dealing with a bunch of alpha male officials who would love to push her out of the way. Stockwell plays the defense secretary who has an "I'm in control here" moment in the Alexander Haig school; Hall is the Attorney General offering counsel; and Bill Smitrovich appears to be the top military brass at the table.

It was a pretty big deal in 1997 for a mainstream movie to depict a female vice president as an ordinary thing, in much the same we got our first black president in "Deep Impact" a decade before the real one. Bennett is shown as smart, tough and willing to make the hardest calls -- even with sexist taunts from Korshunov about sweating through her silk blouse.

Interestingly, for all our talk lately of "the 25th Amendment" option for deposing a U.S. president, it actually nearly happens in the movie. The A.G. obtains the signatures of a majority of the cabinet to declare Marshall unable to carry out his duties, and all it requires is for Bennett to sign off and become president. Her final moment of triumph in the movie is ripping up this declaration, thus proving both her mettle and loyalty.

Jerry Goldsmith shows up with one of his most most brass-heavy music scores, horns blasting out militaristic marches that land just this side of overwrought.

Is there more to "Air Force One" than it seems? I don't really think so. It's a very well done, manipulative (I mean that as a compliment) thriller with just enough political overtones to sound on the level without getting into any serious America-bashing.

Many other movies have done similar things, so here's what that can look like when it's done with an A-list cast, director and production values. This is the sort of Hollywood contraption that you go into knowing exactly what you're going to get, and come out mightily pleased that you got it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Review: "Let Them All Talk"

Reviewing movies is a little different these days. It's fair to say we're having to work extra hard. It used to be a relatively simple matter of seeing what new theatrical releases were coming up, scheduling/lobbying for screenings with the regional studios reps, and making a plan of what to cover.

With everything format-neutral now, it's difficult to know what's coming out in theaters, on Video on Demand and the varying streaming services in any kind of strategic way. I kind of have to take an educated guess about what's most important to review, and do that. The end result is that some outlets get more attention than others.

But this week was an easy call: I heard that a movie was coming out on HBO Max starring Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen and said, "I'm there." Throw in Lucas Hedges and director Steven Soderbergh, and that's 29 Oscar nominations and six wins between them.

Talk about pedigree, and the film didn't disappoint.

Consider that over the past four decades, there has never been longer than a five-year period in which Streep was not up for an Academy Award. And she's earned every one of them. Streep continues to show ferocious strength and emotional subtleties in nearly all her roles, and "Let Them All Talk" is no exception.

She plays Alice Hughes, a renowned novelist nearing the end of her career. Alice is one of those smart people who works very hard to let everyone know how smart she is. She's observant, sensitive, and has a generosity of spirit, even if it only goes a certain way. Not a bad person, a little full of herself, though most people agree she has every right to be.

The story (screenplay by rookie screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg) entails a cross-ocean ship voyage Alice is taking with her two oldest friends, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), as well as her nephew, Tyler (Hedges). The purpose is to collect a major literary award in England, and Alice does not fly. 

Her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), also tags along, unbeknownst to Alice. Her latest manuscript is due, and no one in the publishing world even knows what it's about. Karen and her peers hope it is a sequel to Alice's most celebrated novel from 35 years ago about a woman, Rowena, who tanked her marriage horribly. It was a best-seller that was turned into a movie, and the agents and publishers can smell the surefire green of a follow-up.

Several dynamics are happening at once on board the ship. Alice has brought Tyler along to look after her two friends, since she stays in her cabin most of the day working, only emerging for a shared lunch and a solo swim. But Tyler gets recruited by Karen to be her spy to find out more about the new book, and becomes infatuated with her.

Meanwhile, Roberta and Susan are feeling left out and stiffed. Although they were the closest of friends in college, they don't really see each other much and their friendship has evolved to that stage of Christmas cards and occasional phone calls.

Susan, who works with abused families, is fine with this arrangement but Roberta is not. She seethes with resentment toward Alice, believing that the Rowena character was based on her. 

Roberta is a real piece of work, toiling at a lowly (to her) job selling lingerie while openly campaigning for a rich man to marry. She's one of those people whose life hasn't worked out the way they hoped and now feel they are owed something -- and Roberta has decided Alice is the one who owes it.

For her part, Alice thinks she's doing her pals a great favor by getting them free passage on a glorious two-week ship cruise. It never occurs to her that spending time with her friends should be part of the bargain.

Left more or less to themselves, Susan and Roberta play loads of board games and natter away about the situation with Alice. They bump into Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant), a famous mystery writer -- think John Grisham and Dean Koontz rolled together -- who's also on the cruise. At first heaving-breast fangirls, they are delighted to strike up a chatty friendship.

There's a great juxtaposition of two scenes between Alice and Kelvin. She makes a great show of protesting she's never heard of him, even though it's likely he has sold many times the number of her books. While she's giving a talk, Kelvin gets up and gives a lovely paean to her favorite book (not the Rowena one). Later, she asks him about his own writing process and manages to insult him without seeming aware she's doing so.

(Though I suspect Alice is keenly cognizant of how she comes across.)

"Let Them All Talk" is a gem of a little movie with a half-dozen well-drawn characters, each of whom we feel like we get to know, and would like to do so even further. Even though Roberta and Alice can be rather unpleasant, the feel like full-bodied, authentic women who live in the real world.

I wasn't familiar with Algrant and Chan as actors, and both give very nice supporting performances that are small in screen time but feel big in their impact on the story. In most movies Karen would be depicted as a one-dimensional, conniving character but here we get to see all sorts of shadings we didn't expect. My only regret is she kind of gets pushed to the background in the last act.

And there's Streep, a cinematic giant who, at 71, somehow still seems to be building toward her peak rather than sliding down the back end of it. She's America's greatest living film actress (or actor), and I never get tired of talking about that.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Review: "Luxor"


As I've gotten older, I've found myself much more appreciate of slower, languid filmmaking. Movies that would have bored me to death with the lack of a strong narrative thread at age 20 can more easily worm their way into my heart now. 

I can't say, though, that "Luxor" was one of those.

Andrea Riseborough plays Hana, a woman at the crossroads of life, figuratively and literally. A surgeon who practices in some of the world's worst hot spots for conflict and economic strife, she has some time off before moving on to her next assignment. She's decided to spend it in and around Luxor, the Egyptian city where she made pleasant memories 20 years earlier.

Much of the movie, written and directed by Zeina Durra, consists of just following Hana around as she travels and looks at things. The wordless stretches are sometimes so long that when a character speaks again, we're momentarily jarred by the relative cacophony. 

I guess we would call this movie a romance, since not long into her journeys Hana stumbles across Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist she knew back in the day. It is soon apparent that they were lovers, and their respective career and personal paths diverged. But now rejoined, they find the mutual longing is still there.

We get the sense that Hana, with her seemingly random day trips to historical spots, was probably searching for Sultan -- even if she didn't know it herself.

Not much really happens after that in the traditional sense of film storytelling. He shows her a "feminist temple" where a pair of lovers of an insignificant king raided his burial place, scattering his remains and replacing his images with their own. They go to his current dig to meet up with some of her other friends from back in the day. 

Sultan follows Hana around like a presumptuous puppy, constantly with an arm on her or just encircling her body without touching, as if declaring ownership of her space. She is less receptive to a reunion than he is, but it feels like she's arguing with her own heart against the direction it's pulling.

With her omnipresent pulled-back blonde waves, thin face and shapeless clothes, Hana is playing the role of tourist in her own life rather than living it. She does cast sidelong glances at children playing nearby, and mentions to Sultan that she doesn't look at his Facebook page because it would be hurtful to see him happy on a beach with a wife and children.

I was never truly bored watching "Luxor," though I'll add I wasn't happy when its brief 85-minute runtime came to a close. I formed a pretty good idea of where the movie would end up, which it did exactly, and that's always a trifle disappointing.

"Luxor" is essentially the visualization of one woman wrestling with the first half of her life, which will end up deciding how the second one unfolds. That's ripe material for a really compelling story, but instead we just get the contemplation.