David’s Watch Diary: November 2019, Part 2

Thoughts on Knives Out, The Irishman, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Frozen 2, The Crown, and much more TV.

Knives Out

The highest compliment that I can give Knives Out is that it gives you exactly what you want — an entertaining, Agatha Christie-inspired, drawing room whodunnit — in an entirely unexpected fashion. There’s an exceptional Thomas Pynchon joke, for example. And a shocking amount of vomit. But at no point does Rian Johnson’s immaculately constructed script seek to hoodwink the audience; as our Poirot stand-in, Benoit Blanc (a delightful Daniel Craig) can attest, all of the pieces are there from the very beginning, and the joy comes from watching them unexpectedly snap together.

It begins with the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), author of a lifetime’s worth of bestselling mystery novels. The police (Lakeith Stanfield & Noah Segan) have ruled it a suicide, but someone has anonymously hired Blanc to prove otherwise, so the game is afoot. And anyone in the Thrombey family could be responsible, as a plethora of motives are teased out throughout Blanc’s early investigation. Was it the daughter-in-law in financial straits (Toni Collette at her GOOP-iest)? The son who was losing control of the publishing empire (Michael Shannon)? The son-in-law who didn’t want his philandering revealed (Don Johnson)? The cynical grandson he had argued with the night before (Chris Evans, enjoying playing against type)? Or someone else?

Johnson has long been one of my favorite working filmmakers; his 2005 neo-noir Brick is especially dear to my heart, and I would die defending The Last Jedi. Even his films that only mostly work, The Brothers Bloom and Looper, are still bursting with creativity and style. With Knives Out he takes heavy inspiration from the classics — as much from The Last of Sheila and Death on the Nile as from Murder By Death and Clue — but updates them for the 21st century, when cell phones quickly solve problems that would have driven entire films a half-century ago. Bob Ducsay’s sprightly editing takes a non-linear Rashomon approach to the events of Thrombey’s fateful birthday party, keeping the audience (and Blanc) on their toes, but unlike the family, it always plays fair.

Blanc enlists the help of Thrombey’s loyal caregiver, Marta (Ana de Armas, in a star-making performance), as he pokes around the gorgeous New England mansion. It’s through this relationship that we see that Johnson has more on his mind than just delivering a crackerjack mystery; the film is deliberately set in Trump’s America (though Johnson started writing the script years ago), and the Thrombeys are divided between those who would make her family’s immigration status a plot point while celebrating her as “one of the good ones,” and those who think themselves open-minded but are just as selfish when the chips are down. It isn’t long before Knives Out becomes a story about class and privilege, which dovetails with Blanc’s dogged gumshoe work in surprising and satisfying ways. It’d be a crime to reveal more, but the film’s final shot is an all-timer. Right now, with one month to go, it’s my favorite film of 2019.

The Irishman

This is a tricky one to write about, because on first blush I actually found Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic kind of underwhelming. And I really tried to do it right — we sent the kids upstairs early and watched all 209 minutes of The Irishman in one uninterrupted sitting, where we waited… and waited… and waited for it to kick into gear. As depicted on screen, the life and career of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is one of dull predictability; he falls in with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), he takes on assignments, accrues political power through his friendship with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and then ultimately has to do his motormouthed friend in in a scene as haphazard as it is brutal.

And yet, the more I thought about it, I realized that was kind of the point. Yes, we’ve seen Scorsese do this material before, but unlike the flash and exhilaration of Goodfellas and Mean Streets, there is no glamour to be found in The Irishman. Sheeran is a regular “working man” whose job just happens to be murdering people. More importantly, this isn’t about Sheeran being pushed to his breaking point, or counting down to his own ignominious fall, but about slowly, quietly, and inexorably decaying from within until he’s just a sad, unfulfilled old man with no one left to protect, and a daughter (Anna Paquin) who won’t speak to him. What was it all for?

Many of Scorsese’s best films have an undercurrent of real or perceived emptiness, of hard men making hard decisions for short-term gain. Scorsese is vicariously looking back on his own career, the stories he’s chosen to tell, and how he’s chosen to tell them; the film’s opening steadicam isn’t gliding through the Copa, but a retirement center. The film’s final hour, centering on the Hoffa hit and its aftermath, is some of the director’s most subdued work; the pervading sense of inevitability isn’t accompanied by dread, but melancholy. And the closing image is an inversion of The Godfather, a powerful commentary on a genre finally stripped of its cinematic artifice.

The other big talking point on The Irishman is its very expensive use of “de-aging” CGI on its cast, which you basically forget about after the first few scenes of it. (That said, while they can make De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci look decades younger, that definitely move like old men.) This supplements, rather than takes away from, the extraordinary performances from De Niro and Pacino, the latter working with Scorsese for the first time. Both have been known to phone it in in recent years, but not here. This is “the old stuff,” as they would say, with every glance, stammer, and gesture finely tuned. Joe Pesci is the best of the bunch, coming out of retirement to play the quieter (but completely in charge) Russ. The CGI looks the oddest on him, but it matters the least because where the others are still DE NIRO! and PACINO!, Pesci can completely disappear into the role.

The Irishman doesn’t beat Silence or Wolf of Wall Street for me as far as the master’s work this decade, but don’t mistake your lack of engagement for its lack of substance. If it’s the capstone on a career that, unlike Sheeran’s, is not yet over, it will be dissected further in the months and years to come. Just not by me.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Hanks is perfect. I’ll start with that. News of his casting as the late, beloved Mr. Rogers — as close to a saint as we’ve had in modern American culture — was greeted with a “well, of course,” and he absolutely radiates decency in the role. There’s a moment where he asks the cynical reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) to just pause for a minute and “think about those who loved you into existence,” and the entire restaurant stops around them, heeding his words, and Hanks stares directly into the camera, and you can’t help but feel just a little bit of that kindness that Rogers showed every person he met coming right off the screen — a reputation that by and large extends to Hanks himself.

Marielle Heller’s film, though, doesn’t lean overmuch on Hanks’s uncanny embodiment of our worthiest values. This Beautiful Day could have easily been manipulative or saccharine; the story, based loosely on the real friendship between Rogers and the Esquire reporter whose worldview changed through interviewing him, is laid out before us surprise-free from the very beginning. And yet, there’s not just an uncommon grace in how Heller approaches the material, but a satisfying eccentricity as well; this is no paint-by-numbers biopic. Scene transitions are depicted as dioramas, tiny cars and airplanes gently guided across the frame. Vogel, pushing himself too hard to finish a story he initially doesn’t care about while dealing with the illness of the father who abandoned him (Chris Cooper), hallucinates himself as a puppet character in King Friday XIII’s castle.

It’s a lovely, restrained performance from the former Americans star; he balances Hanks’s otherworldly, weaponized decency without bluster or artifice. But the Oscar buzz should belong to his co-star, who hasn’t been nominated since Cast Away (I know!!!) — there isn’t a better match of actor and material in 2019, I’d wager. From Hanks’s first appearance, staged as an episode of his show in its familiar 4:3 broadcast ratio, I felt a wave of unexpected emotion — not just nostalgia, but something more. Something richer. It’s honestly hard to explain, and I was grateful that I had that 10AM Tuesday screening all to myself, so no one would hear me fighting back tears.

Frozen II

Before it got utterly run into the ground (so…for a few weeks), the first Frozen actually felt pretty fresh. It’s hard to revisit it now because as a parent I’m just so sick of it, but that’s not entirely the film’s fault; it’s still an effective tale of sisterhood and responsibility, and the music mostly holds up. So while it was inevitable that Disney would roll out a sequel (not counting the ghastly TV special Coco lead-in Olaf’s Frozen Adventure), it didn’t have to be something to dread.

I’ll give Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck credit: Frozen II (Roman numerals, so classy) doesn’t play like a retread, but a proper continuation of the story. It answers some questions I wasn’t even aware I had after the first film, and deepens the world in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or mercenary. Following a mysterious singing voice, Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) is drawn to a mist-saturated forest to tame the spirits of the four elements, save her kingdom, and hopefully, understand what her destiny has been all along. And because they didn’t really get to hang out together in the first film, sister Anna (Kristen Bell), her beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the perpetually sunny snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) are along for the ride.

The actual story here is actually pretty engaging — there’s a cute fire salamander, a water horse, and titanic earth giants, but also a well-researched layover with an indigenous tribe and some “sins of the father” themes that are surprisingly heavy for small kids. But like before, the biggest stars are the songs from returning composing team Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez. There are more tunes than in the first film, and the quality is also more consistent; I especially enjoyed the folk-inspired “All Is Found” and Kristoff’s big number (they let Groff sing, finally) “Lost in the Woods,” a power ballad staged like a Michael Bolton video. The headliner is “Into the Unknown,” which probably won’t have the staying power of “Let it Go” (thankfully) but gives Menzel another opportunity to blow the doors off the theater.

Olaf Fatigue is real, though. So watch out for that.

The Crown, Season 3 (Netflix)

Peter Morgan’s austere series remains a bit of a tough sell, and that’s best exemplified by a moment in one of the season’s standout episodes, “Bubbikins.” The Windsors have agreed to let the BBC record a television documentary about their day to day, which Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) describes as “deathly dull.” That prophecy is borne out when the documentary finally airs, and the royals’ mystique is shattered. It turns out that no one really wants to know more about their lives, because the mystery and protocol is part of the point.

That doesn’t translate to The Crown, however. You don’t have to be a royalist, Anglophile, history buff, or interior decorator to be captivated by the series, and Morgan’s writing has only gotten richer as the characters have aged. Season 3 is also the first with a brand-new cast, an experiment that takes a couple episodes to settle into (though the opening scene of “Olding” hits it head-on). Oscar-winner Olivia Colman steps in for Claire Foy, and brings both withering humor and woundedness to the role of Elizabeth; Tobias Menzies is exceptional as Phillip, who responds to the moon landing by tumbling into a mid-life crisis. Their marriage seems stronger than ever even as the empire further decays around them: the disaster in Aberfan, rolling blackouts across the country, the deterioration of Margaret’s marriage.

And as the Queen gets closer to celebrating her Silver Jubilee, the focus begins to shift toward her children. Erin Doherty is a sardonic delight as Anne, but the season’s finest episode, “Tywysog Cymru,” centers on Charles (an exceptional Josh O’Connor) — the young man who will be king (um… eventually? Maybe?) — and his sojourn in Wales prior to his investiture. There, the aspiring actor learns the language from a prickly nationalist professor, and finds he has a lot in common with a people who have been historically marginalized.

This is brought home in shattering fashion when his too-personal speech is finally translated for his mother, and she demolishes him, saying “No one wants to hear” his voice. It doesn’t matter how much she defended him when he wasn’t in the room; for Charles, it’s a defining moment in their relationship, Later on stage, he performs the climactic monologue from Richard II, all-too aware of how hollow that crown is. And still, Diana looms on the horizon. It may not feel like high drama to the Windsors, but in the hands of Morgan and his accomplished cast, it’s modern Shakespeare.

Quick hits:

  • I love The Mandalorian to pieces. Well, perhaps I should say I love Baby Yoda to pieces (along with the rest of the internet, the only thing we can all agree on in these troubled times), but the series itself gets more interesting, and the discussion around it more engaging, as the weeks go on. The Deborah Chow-helmed “The Sin” was pure Space Western as Mando took back his lil’ green friend from the up-to-no-good Werner Herzog; it was my favorite episode to date until this week’s “Sanctuary,” which dialed up the Kurosawa to 11. I’m most impressed by how Chow and Bryce Dallas Howard(!) use subtle camera choices to communicate what our faceless hero is thinking; even if our emotional attachment to Mando is fueled primarily by his affection for Baby Yoda, we can read his thoughts behind that mask loud and clear. With great action, cool world-building, and evocative design, it’s old-school television in the best possible way. Only a fool would still think Disney should have dumped it all at once.
  • Since Part 1 of my November diary two weeks ago, Watchmen delivered a knockout pair of episodes. “Little Fear of Lightning” turned a well-earned spotlight to Tim Blake Nelson’s Looking Glass, a very LOST/Leftovers-ish character study that also filled in key pieces on the squid attack 30 years ago, and how Veidt fits into it all (he’s on a moon!). But as cool as all that was, “This Extraordinary Being” was virtuosic television. Exceptionally directed by Stephen Williams as a series of mind-bending steadicam shots, Angela’s journey through her grandfather’s memory completely reframed Watchmen lore with the reveal that Hooded Justice, the original masked vigilante, was a black man — and a closeted cop at that. It was a mesmerizing hour of storytelling, as much for the action and style on screen as for what it represents.
  • The last episode of The Good Place until 2020, “The Answer,” successfully accomplished something the show had been struggling with since the beginning. I have always rooted for Eleanor and Chidi as a couple, but now I actually believe in them. Well done, Mike Schur & co., and not a moment too soon.
  • Mr. Robot is rocketing towards its endgame, too, though it took the time last week for “Proxy Authentication Required,” a scorching one-room drama where Rami Malek, Gloria Reuben, and Elliot Villar gave their finest performances to date. The fact that the big “twist” — that Elliot was sexually abused by his father, and created Mr. Robot to make him forget it — didn’t surprise me at all didn’t take away from the raw power and energy on screen. Malek, in particular, was so good here that I’m almost okay with his Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody. Almost.
  • Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, about the investigation of the CIA’s torture program, is a polished and infuriating film that I expect that no one who needs to learn from it will watch, and to be honest, I’m starting to find that particular genre exhausting. But that’s not a reason for it not to exist, and Adam Driver is very good in it, so it gets a solid three stars from me.

Looking ahead to… Adam Driver SZN continues with Marriage Story (12/6, Netflix) and The Rise of Skywalker (12/20); The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (12/6) and The Expanse (12/13) on Amazon; Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (12/13), and Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell (12/13). The end of the year also brings the last Oscar contenders: The Two Popes (12/20, Netflix), and 1917, Little Women, Uncut Gems, and Bombshell all on Christmas Day.

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