THE WIFE

by Alan Yudman

This is one of those, “whoa, how did I miss this?!?” movies. I thought it was about a long-suffering wife who had had enough of her husband. Guess I should read the descriptions and/or reviews more closely. THE WIFE is a very good movie that has lots of twists, drama and an Oscar nominated performance by Glenn Close.

The long-suffering wife part is kind of correct. But, it is a much deeper problem than that. Jonathan Pryce is a novelist in the mold of Phillip Roth. A New Yorker who writes about the American experience from a Jewish perspective. Spoiler alert… he’s not Phillip Roth. The movie opens with Joseph Castleman (Pryce) and his wife Joan (Close) waiting for a phone call from the Nobel Committee. The call comes. He’s won the Literature Prize and the two celebrate by jumping up and down on their bed.

The movie takes off from there. They travel to Stockholm with their son, David, who is a budding author who doesn’t get the recognition or love from his father he feels he deserves. He does get that support from his Mom. While jetting across the Atlantic on the Concorde, we are introduced to Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who is campaigning to write Joseph’s biography.

There is a tension between the couple that you really cannot put your finger on. Then we get the drip, drip, drip of a stunning reveal. Screenwriter Jane Anderson and Director Bjorn Runge go back in time to show us how young Joe (Harry Lloyd) and Joan (Close’s daughter Annie Starke) first met and developed their relationship. He was married.. Joan was the other woman who stole him away. The reason may have been love, but there is also another reason which is hinted at and not confirmed until late in the film.

The film plays out like a mystery. There are clues to the “crime” dropped throughout the film. Bone’s talk with Joan over drinks in a bar where he reveals he knows she’s a great writer. Joe doesn’t remember the name of one of his characters when it is dropped at a Nobel event. The allusion to Joe’s many affairs. The way he dismisses his son’s talent, yet Joan believes he has “it”. Joe seems to be running from or dismissing the truth. And we find that is exactly what is happening.

The cast is wonderful, but none more wonderful than Close. She exhibits a control that makes you believe she is the doting wife, but you can see she knows something and that is bubbling under the surface. Then when it finally comes to a head at the Nobel dinner, she doesn’t say a word, but you can see it in her eyes, her face, her manner. It is a perfect performance and it would not surprise me if she finally wins her first Oscar.

Pryce is solid as usual. Max Irons as the aggrieved son is equally good. Slater’s performance surprised me. He is a sleazy biographer who is worming his way into the good graces of Joan and David using fake empathy. He’s slimy and terrific.

THE WIFE came and went and is now only getting a second look because of Close’s nomination and wins at The Golden Globes and the SAG awards. But that undersells how good the wife really is. Maybe Close elevates it, but who cares? A good movie is a good movie. And THE WIFE is worth your time.

LEAVE NO TRACE

by Alan Yudman

I first became aware of Debra Granik with the remarkable WINTER’S BONE. It put Jennifer Lawrence on my radar, and gave her the cred she would use to become one of the best actresses in the world. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 2011 based on her remarkable performance. I, like many others, became enthralled with Lawrence almost to the exclusion of Granik. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe Granik’s dark, yet inspiring story about a teenager trying to track down her father while keeping her family together didn’t win more awards (THE KING’S SPEECH won best picture, Natalie Portman won best actress for BLACK SWAN, and Aaron Sorkin won for adapted screenplay for THE SOCIAL NETWORK). Then Granik all but disappeared.

This year she is back with another incredible movie, LEAVE NO TRACE. It is another moving story about being an outsider and trying to live life on your own terms. Ben Foster is Will, the father of a 13-year-old daughter. They are living off the grid in an urban forest just outside of Portland, Oregon. It is the only way he can keep his head together. Will is a veteran with PTSD, who wants little to do with society. He believes he can give his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) a better life off the grid. They are happy until a chance encounter with jogger alerts authorities to their presence and suddenly they two are thrown into the system.

The film deals with how the two of them adapt. Will tries to fit in, but he cannot do it. Tom on the other hand is making a more serious effort. She starts to make a friend. She seems to be adapting at a slow pace. Then, Will decides they must leave. They are already too integrated into society for his liking, and for his sanity. They leave again in the middle of the night. This time something is different. Tom doesn’t seem to understand it. They wind up in southern Washington.. in a cold and rainy forest that almost kills both of them.

Will is constantly running from his illness. He has episodes in the middle of the night. He is in denial that his lifestyle can save him and he is dragging his daughter along for the bleak ride. But, Tom loves her father too much to abandon him until she realizes that she cannot live his life. She cannot survive. Despite their love, she must let him follow his own path. Even their love cannot fix him. That all plays out in a heart wrenching final scene.

Granik’s story is quiet and powerful. It speaks to love and desperation. It acknowledges that love may not be enough to solve every problem. Granik’s screenplay and direction along with cinematography by Michael McDonough are perfect. It is a postcard for the beauty and danger of the Pacific Northwest. Granik’s camera spends a lot of time on Tom’s reactions and Will’s pain. It is gorgeous and effective. But, it wouldn’t work without two outstanding performances. Foster deserves an Oscar nomination that he may miss out on because of the timing of LEAVE NO TRACE’s release. Out of sight, out of mind. This is the first major American role for Thomasin McKenzie, a young actress from New Zealand. She is incredible. Maybe Granik is the “young actress whisperer”. She has identified a young talent (McKenzie is 18), who definitely has a bright future.

Granik has made only 2 other fictional movies (DOWN TO THE BONE and WINTER’S BONE) before this. So when she decides to grace us with another example of her amazing storytelling ability, Hollywood should stand up and take notice. I wish she would give us more. But maybe we should just be thankful for the gifts she delivers every so often. Because, LEAVE NO TRACE is definitely one of the best films of 2018.

VICE

by Alan Yudman

Maybe it’s still too fresh in our minds and hearts. Dick Cheney’s evil reign as Vice President of the United States still gives me agita. I can’t think of the horrible things he did that have ruined several parts of this country without my blood boiling. But that is a debate and a post for another blog. So, how can you tell his story without sending the audience screaming from the theater in anger. The answer is you can’t, and Adam McKay doesn’t even try in VICE. Instead he embraces it.

The title is most likely an intentional double entendre. He was the Vice President who’s vice was the accumulation of power. And Cheney would do just about anything to achieve his goal. Lies, corruption, twisting interpretations of the Constitution were not left out of his toolbox.

The other challenge was Cheney is a deeply private man. The documents relating to his time as Veep are few because he conspired to not leave a paper trail. McKay acknowledges this difficulty right off the bat in an opening title card.

The casting of Christian Bale as Cheney is inspired. Bale went all in. He gained 45 pounds and shaved his head. He also sat in makeup for hours every day to complete the transformation and it works perfectly. He also has Cheney’s stilted growl down perfectly. But McKay doesn’t just paint a picture of evil. Cheney is a screwup at first before he is mentored by Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), then a congressman from Illinois. That’s where he learns his craft. He shows Cheney as a loving husband and father who truly cares about his daughters Liz and Mary. He also adores his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). But even that love can be compromised for what he perceives as a greater good (not good.. really, REALLY evil).

This is not a straight ahead biopic. McKay jumps back and forth in time. Sometimes it is a bit confusing, but once you’re on board you figure out what’s going on. Fishing is also a big thing in the movie. McKay used Barton Gellman’s biography “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency” as source material, so Cheney’s love of fishing is a theme throughout. There is also something very Shakespearean about the story. The naked grab for power at all costs, while attempting to balance that with love of family. McKay goes all in on that too. There is one scene where Cheney and Lynne are discussing whether he should accept George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) offer to be Vice President. McKay has written near perfect Shakespeare-style dialogue as Dick and Lynne debate power versus love while lying in bed. It was so good I went searching for which play it is from. It isn’t from any. McKay made it up. Genius. Then at the end Cheney turns to the audience to justify his evil. Man, it was chilling.

The cast is brilliant. In addition to Bale, Adams shines as the loving yet power hungry Lynne, constantly pushing her husband to achieve more. Carrell is a genius choice for the gruff, blunt and sometimes obscene Rumsfeld. Rockwell doesn’t go too far into parody for Bush, which is a brilliant choice. Eddie Marsan is the spitting image of Paul Wolfowitz. Justin Kirk (Scooter Libby), Alison Pill (Mary), Lily Rabe (Liz), Don McManus (attorney/adviser David Addington) are all spectacular. Even seeming stunt casting like Tyler Perry as Colin Powell works great.

There is a lot of comedy in the film. Can you make heart attacks funny? Yes. Yes you can.. each one of Cheney’s is played for a chuckle. McKay makes a lot of choices that seem weird, but in the end they all come together. Jesse Plemons is the narrator who we actually see and plays a pivotal role that I won’t spoil. Then as the credits roll you find you’ve put it all together and see the line from all of this evil-doing to where we are today and how it could happen again and again with the wrong person in the White House.

McKay won an Oscar for adapted screenplay for THE BIG SHORT. Maybe he should win another for this inspired film that will have you thinking for days after you’ve seen it.

THE DEATH OF STALIN

by Alan Yudman

I was recently raving to a friend about THE DEATH OF STALIN after having seen it on cable. That makes it about 6 times that I have seen this marvelous satire from the brilliant and deranged mind of Armando Iannucci. So I decide to check out my review and.. GASP… I realize I never posted a review! Well, time to fix that lapse.

I am a huge fan of Iannucci’s previous work. Everyone loves VEEP, and while it’s still good, it is just a smidge less after Iannucci left after 2015. But that wasn’t my introduction to him. I first became aware of his particular brand of satire with IN THE LOOP (and looking back on my 2009 review, boy did I get that one wrong). That Academy Award nominated screenplay was bitingly funny and a poignant look at the buffoonery of the British and American governments. After diving a bit deeper I realized Peter Capaldi’s character, Malcolm, originated in the British series THE THICK OF IT. I have been able to catch a few of those, but they are incredibly hard to find. Then I realized that he helped create Steve Coogan’s legendary Alan Partridge. So yeah, I am totally in the tank for Armando Iannucci.

That brings us to THE DEATH OF STALIN. The movie is set in Moscow and at Stalins dacha just after the dictator’s death. What we witness is the struggle for power in the days after. This is about 10 levels of hilarious. There are not many Russians in the cast. Olga Kurylenko (QUANTUM OF SOLACE) is a concert pianist, and other than a few other tiny roles, that’s it. The actors are mostly British and American. There is no attempt at accurate accents and it doesn’t matter. Iannucci isn’t going for historical accuracy. He’s going for laughs and biting satire.

Here’s a list of who plays whom.

Steve Buscemi: Nikita Khrushchev

Jeffrey Tambor: Georgy Malenkov

Michael Palin: Vyacheslav Molotov

Simon Russell Beale: Lavrenti Beria

Andrea Riseborough: Svetlana Stalina

Rupert Friend: Vasily Stalin

Jason Isaacs: Field Marshal Zhukov

So, yeah. This is an amazing cast. There are also short appearances by Paddy Considine and Tom Brooke early in the movie that set the comedic stage.

The power struggle pits Khrushchev against Beria. Both are trying to manipulate the rules to seize power. Beale is head of the NKVD, the secret police. Both he and Khrushchev are part of the Government’s and Party’s inner power circle. So the way they try to take advantage of situations are inspired and hilarious.

Everyone is fabulous, but the standouts are Buscemi, Beale and Isaacs. Beale is a legendary British stage actor who has a few movie and TV credits. He is incredible in this. The joy he takes at torturing and using people is amazing. Buscemi is at peak Buscemi. And Isaacs’ menacing, brutal military leader is almost my favorite part of the movie.

This is so layered with not so subtle jabs at American and British politics, you have to watch it at least twice to catch everything. I don’t think that’s bad. Iannucci gets it all in brilliantly and the movie just gets better with each viewing. I keep spotting things I missed the first, second or third time. The parallels to America’s current political culture may not be intentional, but they are certainly there.

Iannucci can make you think about things while making you laugh out loud. Isn’t that what great satire is about? I think it is and THE DEATH OF STALIN is a prime example of a great filmmaker at his peak.

Sent from my iPad