La La Land (Damien Chazelle – 2016) B+

This is was wonderful film. I was hugely skeptical of the “musical” connotations but it really is not a traditional musical. By and large it is a well-made romantic movie about music, jazz, Hollywood, our dreams and the choices we make. There are a few songs here and there but the music of the film is what stands out along with the very likeable characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. On top of that we have the solid direction and storytelling that goas for a mix of fantasy and reality. It sounds like it should not work but it really does. The last 10 minutes of this are one of the most wonderful movie endings I have seen.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin – 2020) B+

I’ve never even heard of this piece of history known as the trial of the Chicago 7. These guys were arrested and and accused of instigating riots and violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The justice department wanted to make an example of them. The film is well made and well acted. It has that hallmark Sorkin dialogue and the courtroom scenes are mostly excellent. It does gloss over some details and feels like it does not give the character of Bobby Seale enough attention. Still this is one that I enjoyed and that resonates with our current political climate.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay – 2011) A

Is it nature or nurture? I do not think this heartbreaking film comes on one side or the other of what makes a psychopath. While it is obvious that there is something off about Kevin since he was in elementary school, it does not mean his parents could not have done something about it. It’s one of those movies that sparks a lot of debate after you see it. Tilda Swinton delivers a great performance as the mom who is dealing with the aftermath of what Kevin did and is our surrogate as we go through his life. She never seems like she wanted to be a mother and move to the suburbs. John C. Riley is also excellent playing the father who never sees anything seriously wrong with Kevin. This combination ensures they never really talk about their son or deal with the issues he has.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman- 2020) A+

 I saw it twice, then listened to the book on Audible. It is a masterpiece I think and the most inaccessible of Kaufman’s movies. It’s rare when a film asks so much of me and expects me to either keep up or give up. It’s even more rare to accept the challenge and dig in through the various layers and existential questions it poses. This succeeded in doing both and drove me to research it more. I cannot remember the last time I did this. What is it about? It’s (some spoilers here coming up) tough to really decipher everything in the movie. In the book it is made pretty clear what is happening by the end of it and the movie diverges a bit there.

For the movie, I mostly figured that what we are watching is the old man janitor/Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) fantasy of sorts from the first time i saw the movie and confirmed it on second viewing. This makes the middle horrific parent visit so essential to the film. Jake and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) are on their way to visit his parents’ home through a snowstorm. It is at the home where it becomes clear…well kind of clear that the girlfriend is possibly not there. The phone calls from herself and the bizarre  messages are confusing but also emphasize the surreal nature of that whole sequence and make us question everything we assumed about the couple. I admit there is no way to decipher what the caller is saying without reading the book though. By the time we leave the house, well, we are no longer under the illusion that anything is taking place in what we would think of as reality.

It adds to that Kaufman’s choice of how to film them in long stretches in the car with the wipers on, sometimes from the outside of the car. It’s unnerving and creepy. Jake is having this elaborate alternative life fantasy and he centers it on having his parents meet his girlfriend. Part of that fantasy is the house he grew up in, still lives in as an old man, his long gone dog and his parents. His parents, who might have liked Lucy or Yvonne or whatever her name might be. Her name changes, her occupation shifts because she can be anyone he might have met. Maybe she is the girl he met all those years ago at trivia night. what might have been had he actually dated her. Yet he could not help but have his troubled subconscious and horrible memories of his childhood (maggot pig, creepy basement, life on the farm…) how his parents gotten old (down to his mom’s toe nail!) and died from intruding on the nice visit fantasy. 

The final third, after the visit is where we go to the “high school” and everything unraveled in a mix of memory, reality and fantasy. We are living through Jake’s final moments during most of the movie I think where he is looking back at his life and what might’ve been. It’s a somber and depressing movie with excellent performances and unique directorial style. It’s not for everyone but I loved it.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers – 2019) A

Two men are operating a lighthouse somewhere off 1800s New England. They are supposed to be there only for 4 weeks or so. Maybe more. In any case this one is about them slowly going insane. Movies like this; two actors, one or two settings are favorites of mine if done well. This is one of those. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are amazing here. The black and white photography and Eggers solid direction makes for a moody surreal masterpiece.

The Devil All the Time (Antonio Campos – 2020) B+

It’s an awful brutal movie. It’s a rough, depressing tale set in a Cormac McCarthy type American south in the backwoods of West Virginia. Sold yet? It’s set in a place and time after the second war where religion and violence saturate every minute of it. We get excellent performances by Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard and Robert Pattinson at his most vile and creepy. It’s not a fun time this one yet I was captivated by the story and the twists and turns where a chance encounter of two people without them knowing sets in motion events that will occur 20 years later.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma – 2019) A-

Set in the 18th century this a perfectly told love story of a painter, Marianne, who is commissioned to paint a young woman, Héloïse, so that the painting can be sent to her husband-to-be. She does not want to be painted, so Marianne has to take walks with her by the beach and sketch her in secret. It’s a beautiful and tender film that looks like a painting. The leading actresses deliver excellent believable performances and create memorable characters as lovers during a time where we know they cannot have a future together.

Defending Your Life (Albert Brooks – 1991) B

When Daniel (Albert Brooks) dies in a car accident he finds himself in a purgatory of sorts. He is assigned a lawyer and needs to defend his life in front of three judges. His specific actions distilled into a few incidents from his life that he re-visits and defends. In the end it is decided he either “moves on” to a different life form or gets sent back to earth for another life to learn more. While there he meets and falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep) who is also on trial for her life choices. Besides the interesting idea this a sweet, smart comedy about the afterlife. It works on the strength and likeability of the leading characters and supporting ones (I especially liked Rip Torn who plays Daniel’s afterlife lawyer). It is also deeper than a silly comedy though. You would think the things that matter in your life are the big huge moments or decisions, horrible or great. In fact many of the items Daniel needs to speak to are small, seemingly not important decisions that are key to happiness, fulfillment and being a better person.

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